His shoes rhythmically pounding the pavement. No thoughts enter his mind. Heartbeat and stride in perfect sync. Time doesn't exist. No awareness of himself or the world around him. Mile after mile, he's totally immersed in the experience. Nothing else exists. Flow.
In his quest to "reverse engineer" happiness, Hungarian psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi interviewed a series of world class mountain climbers, chess players, tennis players, ballet dancers, surgeons, and other "self-actualized" high performers.
He outlined his incredible findings in the book "Flow: The Psychology of Happiness," becoming an overnight bestseller. So, what's this flow state all about?
In an interview with Wired magazine, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi described flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skills to the utmost."
Why Flow Makes Us Happy
Why does flow make us so happy? According to Dr. Csíkszentmihályi, the human mind can only process about 110 bits of information per second. For example, listening to someone speak takes about 60 bits, the reason we can't listen to two people at once.
It's when we are making, doing, creating, and/or playing that our mind has no room for anything else. That's when our full abilities get put to use, all 110 bits per second.
And if we love our chosen activity and are good at it, whatever "it" may be (usually a favorite hobby, sport, or creative endeavor), then our magical "flow" state gets unlocked. And this makes us happy.
We have all heard of the "starving" artist, writer, musician, or composer who would get so lost in their work that they forgot to eat, drink, and sleep. For them, when words, musical notes, and colors "flow" from their consciousness, then nothing else really matters.
So, how long does this "high" last? According to Harvard psychologist Dr. Teresa Amabile, achieving an uninterrupted creative flow state leaves us feeling ecstatic, motivated, and fulfilled for (up to) three days afterward. A powerful drug indeed!
Think back to a time when you experienced flow. What were you doing? Were you gardening, painting, or hiking? Maybe you were dancing, woodworking, or writing? Did your sense of self fade into oblivion? Did time disappear? Did the world drop out of sight? Were your mind, body, and soul absorbed by the moment?
The "Flowing" Brain
In the 30+ years since the publishing of Dr. Csíkszentmihályi's groundbreaking book, neuroscientists have developed a much deeper understanding into the "flow state" brain workings.
Responsible for "skill learning" and "automatized cognition," flow lights up our brain's highly adaptive "caudate nucleus" like the Manhattan skyline. You know when pro-athletes talk about being "in the zone?" Caudate nucleus.
While the best way to get into a flow state is to find your life passion and do it everyday, not all of us know what that is and if we do, there are only so many hours in the day. If you already know what makes you "flow," then DO IT! Everyday if possible. The world needs happy peeps!
While the Mozarts, Picassos, Roger Federers, and Stephen Kings of the world get to experience daily creative flow by virtue of their career, there is another way.
Is Meditation Flow?
In 2013, Belgian researchers (Pickut et al) examined the brains of 27 Parkinson's patients before and after an 8 week mindfulness meditation class. What did they find? In addition to massively upgrading no less than 5 (!) very powerful brain regions, the meditation rookies dramatically increased the gray matter density (GMD) of their "flow state" caudate nucleus.
"In plain English please." The old saying applies here. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck — then it's probably a duck. Likewise, if flow lights up the brain scans like meditation, strengthens the caudate nucleus like meditation, and makes us feel euphoric like meditation, then it's probably meditation.
Whether flow or close to it, what's for certain is that the ancient mind practice opens the door to happiness like no other medium. While the legendary consciousness shifting power of meditation has been known and felt for millennia, it's a whole new ballgame to see hard scientific proof.
And you don't need to give up your material possessions or live the rest of your days in a cave. Countless everyday folks are tapping into meditation's "flowing" benefits to upgrade all areas of their life, with creativity and happiness just the first two drops in an ocean of benefits.
What else can flow do? It lifts us out of the mundane, gives us a sense of purpose. Flow neutralizes apathy, catapults motivation. It makes us grow, develops us as humans, boosts self esteem, opens the door to success. Flow brings meaning to existence.
Smartphone Obsession, The Monkey Mind, The Power Of Now
The Human "Monkey" Mind
Life unfolds in the present.
The problem is, whether it's ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, the human mind does everything it can to avoid being present.
Like a monkey swinging from tree branch to tree branch, the human mind's tendency to constantly jump from thought to thought has made us lose touch with the "now."
With millions of copies sold in over 30 languages, the massive popularity of Eckhart Tolle's 1997 book "The Power of Now" illustrates the grand scale of the problem.
And that was over twenty years ago. Since then, the greatest "attention hogging" device ever conceived has burrowed its way into everyone's pocket — turning our present moment "mole hill" into "Mt. Killiman-JOY-o." You might be reading this article on one right now. The smartphone.
We Touch, Tap, & Swipe Our Phones 2,617 Times Per Day
With the average person touching, tapping, and swiping their smartphone 2,617 times per day (!), walking around with an always connected device means that our mental monkeys now have infinite tree branches from which to grab and swing.
With depression and anxiety statistics up 800% (!) from what they were 50 years ago, many scientists now blame modern man's mental health deficiencies on our always connected devices. On the trend, Dr. Harsh Trivedi told CBSNews,"The difficulty now is you can't really turn things off. We don't necessarily have downtimes to recharge and get our bearings straight again."
If we don't inoculate ourselves to this epidemic, the present moment will soon be but a glimmer in Grandma and Grandpa's eye.
"Mindful" Versus "Mindless" Smartphone Use
"The internet has spread knowledge like nothing the world has ever seen. How do I know if it's my mind monkeys playing with my phone instead of my insatiable quest for wisdom?"
Here is a little exercise. The next time you are touching, tapping, and swiping your phone, pay attention to your posture, breathing, heart rate, and whether you feel "in control" of your actions.
If your breathing is shallow, if you feel tense, and/or if you feel a little "mindless" or impulsive with your actions, then it's likely the monkeys doing their thing. If you don't even have the presence of mind to "check-in" on yourself to complete this exercise, then the monkeys own you.
"I think the mind monkeys have me wrapped around their grubby little fingers. Should I throw my phone in the trash, move to the forest, and become a hermit? I saw "Into The Wild," I know how this movie ends!"
You don't need to give up on modern life or any of its wonderful gadgetry. The goal is to feel calm, in-control, and highly mindful when using your smartphone. That's what meditation brings to the table.
How Meditation Tames The Mind Monkeys
To understand how meditation masterfully tames the monkeys, we must go to their playground. The human brain.
When the brain has nothing to do, it's "Default Mode Network (DMN)" switches on. This "idle mode" is like giving the mind monkeys a bag full of Halloween candy and letting them out for recess.
If we don't give them some kind of a toy, then they will screech and holler (with epic annoyance), yank us every which way, throw banana peels at our feet, "act a fool" to the 8th degree, and so on.
Most of us will do anything to keep the mind monkeys appeased. These days, the easiest solution is to simply hand them our smartphone.
Whether it's apps, social media, news, or games, our always connected devices offer a never-ending supply of amusement.
"I'm Bored": The Default Mode Network (DMN) & The Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC)
Rounding up the monkey troop starts with their master, an area near our brain's midline called the "Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC)." Think Jane Goodall.
As the brain region directly linked to our "I'm bored let's play with my phone" Default Mode Network (DMN), strengthening this chunk of our noggin is the secret to making our mind monkeys docile, gentle, and submissive.
Luckily, that's exactly what meditation does! Among four key brain regions, Harvard University researchers (2011, Hölzel et al) discovered that meditation dramatically increases the Posterior Cingulate Cortex's "gray matter concentration."
What does this mean? In essence, by strengthening the brain's "present moment" discipline center (PCC) into a bona-fide "Full Metal Jacket" drill sergeant, meditation ships the whole monkey troop off to boot camp.
And when they return, the rambunctious, impulsive, and rowdy mind monkeys have miraculously transformed into benevolent, peaceful, and docile little angels. This mindful "leashing" of the monkeys restores order to the courtroom of our mind.
Meditation Transforms The Mind Monkeys, Restores The Power Of "Now"
When we train our mind monkeys to not need constant amusement (i.e. smartphone), we nourish our consciousness with the power of "now." As a result, we become much calmer, happier people.
And no, meditation will not have you trashing your phone or living the rest of your days as a forest hermit. Mindfulness simply untethers anxiety, tension, and impulsivity when using your beloved device. In this way, you control your phone instead of it controlling you. And if you cut down on your daily 2,617 touches, taps, and swipes, then all the better!
Own technology without it owning you. Unleash the present moment. Discover meditation.
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." — Dalai Lama
What makes us truly happy? Many people believe that "achieving & receiving" makes for the happiest life. But the research says otherwise.
According to the latest science, true happiness comes from practicing compassion. It is when we help our fellow man, when we feel connected to the world, when we give expecting nothing in return, when we are kind just to be kind, and when we see people as "other-selves" instead of "others" — that life takes on meaning and purpose.
In fact, a brain imaging study by University of British Columbia researchers showed that, when we donate to charity, our brain's "pleasure center" lights up like the full moon on a clear night. Another University of San Diego study found that acts of kindness, generosity, and cooperation spread like wildfire to everyone nearby.
If spreading joy throughout the world wasn't enough, practicing compassion and kindness opens the door to a host of health benefits. Like what? From living longer, to alleviating anxiety, to lifting depression, to strengthening immunity, the list goes on.
It seems that the old saying "Give... and you shall receive" is anchored in truth.
Becoming More Kind & Compassionate
"Sounds wonderful. I want to be a beacon of light too. But I also want to throw my shoe at humanity from time to time. Aren't kind and compassionate people born that way?"
According to the science, no. Our brain (and our level of consciousness) can be strengthened like a muscle. That's the power of neuroplasticity.
To illustrate, we have all heard stories of the elbow throwing, no holds barred Wall Street banker who gave up a life of riches to help others, whether teaching at a rough inner-city school (for little pay) or volunteering at an orphanage in India.
The point is that we can "right the ship" at any point in life. We can level up our human "kindness o'meter" through our thoughts and actions, regardless of our past. We are never "set" in our capacities.
While each day presents multiple opportunities to "spread the love," shifting into "kindness gear" is easier said than done. Luckily, meditation launches our "compassion consciousness" into orbit.
Meditation Trains Your Brain To Be Kind And Compassionate
And it all starts with the brain. A highly cited UCLA School of Medicine study found that the "right anterior dorsal insula" of meditators to be highly active while in session. What's the link?
As shown by University of Wisconsin neuroscientists' brain imaging, this happens to be the same brain area that lights up like a Christmas tree when our "kindness & compassion o-meter" is full bore.
Is it just a coincidence that many of history's greatest humanitarians were also meditators? Could it be that the ancient practice literally "forged" their brain toward kindness and compassion? Was it meditation's massive shift in consciousness that propelled them to do such great things?
While becoming a kinder and more compassionate person may not put a Nobel Prize on your trophy shelf, it most certainly can make the day of anyone who crosses your path. It's often the little things that make the world a better place, the butterfly effect is a powerful thing.
With your freshly upgraded "put yourself in other people's shoes" and "see your face in others" meditative mindset, how much positive change can you spark in the world?
Change your thoughts. Change your life. Change the world. Discover meditation.
How Meditation Makes Us Feel "At One," Conquers Loneliness
Dealing With Loneliness
To be a happy and healthy human, most of us know that we need to sleep well, eat right, and exercise.
However, very few of us realize just how important "human connectedness" is to our overall mental, emotional, and physical well-being. We are social creatures after all.
According to a highly referenced 300,000+ person study published in the esteemed 'PLOS Medicine' journal, people with the most social relationships (both quantity & quality) are not only much happier, but live 50%+ longer (!) than the rest of us lonely folks.
Another study by UCLA Professor of Medicine Dr. Steve Cole showed that "feeling connected" to others strengthens immunity, while other studies have cited lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self esteem and empathy, the list goes on.
Because of the human mind's tendency to obsess over the past and worry about the future (instead of simply being present), too much time alone can have real mental and physical health consequences.
How Meditation Trains The Brain To Overcome Loneliness
Thinking back, when were your happiest times? For most folks, those precious, magical moments with beloved friends and family quickly come to mind.
Whether we are playing games, eating, drinking, talking, or laughing with our loved ones, the natural human connection we feel anchors our awareness firmly into the present (instead of worrying and obsessing when alone).
While the very best cure for loneliness is a strong "in-person" social network (i.e. not Facebook) and a loving family, this isn't possible for everybody. Unless we go back to tribal living like our ancient ancestors, a more realistic solution is ideal.
Luckily, neuroscientists are on it. When we feel isolated and separated from the "whole," one particular brain region (the "parietal lobe") becomes overheated.
To prevent your car engine from burning up, you need a good radiator. To ensure loneliness doesn't roast your brain, you need to keep your parietal lobe calm, cool, and collected. Thankfully, meditation is up to the task.
Meditation Is Your Best Friend
A University of Pennsylvania scientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg, took brain images of Tibetan Monks during meditation. As expected, their "highly intelligent" frontal lobes lit up the screen, just like countless other studies had shown.
However, what surprised him most was that the meditators' "third-dimensional" based parietal lobes cooled off immensely, which is the same area that loneliness and social isolation brings to a boil.
Dr. Newburg, now a bestselling author, writes "When people lose their sense of self [in meditation], feeling a sense of oneness, [this] results in a blurring of the boundary between self and others...[with] no sense of space or passage of time."
By making us feel connected to everyone and everything, meditation cancels out the detrimental mental, emotional, and physical effects of loneliness. You know, that problem plaguing more than half of modern society.
While friends come and go, meditation will always be there for you.