Finding Flow

Nutmeg-hugs-ReggieI watched Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talk about his psychological research on flow at TED with my journalism students this afternoon. I’ve been looking at a lot of interesting and reasonably short video presentations for the students to practice taking notes to capture quotations.It’s also a good opportunity to introduce them to some interesting ideas they may not have encountered otherwise. Thus, we looked at Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk about the insights she gained about neurobiology from experiencing a stroke herself, a 3-minute definition of optimism from Martin Seligman, who is often credited with founding the academic specialty of positive psychology, and Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi spent his childhood in Europe during World War II. He says in his TED talk, delivered in 2004, that he was struck by what a huge impact the traumas of the war had on the adults around him. He has spent his entire life trying to figure out what makes life worth living. He has written about his research on creativity, flow and meaning in more than 100 publications. One thing he has concluded is that more and more money doesn’t do the trick.

From the 1950s to the end of the 20th century, average personal income in the United States more than doubled. Over the same time period, however, the weight of people who consider themselves “very happy” in the population stayed the same, hovering around 30 percent.

platypus-drawingWhile I was watching, it struck me that pursuit of my interest in positive psychology at the same time I’m taking courses on investing is playing both ends of the chart Csikszentmihalyi showed the audience. I’m a firm believer that money alone doesn’t make life meaningful. The idea that more of it would at least make things easier and allow more time for the pursuits that help me experience flow, however, is seductive.

In the classroom, I decided to stick with a decision I made early in life to pursue meaning in life rather than put my effort into rounding up a big pile of cash. I know I need the financial management skills, and I understand the principles of investing and planning for taxes, insurance, retirement and other contingencies. We all need to manage these things. Some of us find ourselves in the flow in the game of investing. I don’t mind making financial plans and taking action — I even find them interesting — however, these activities don’t make me feel what Csikszentmihalyi describes as feeling in flow:

  • Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  • Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  • Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  • A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  • Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

banana-yuccaI feel flow when I am writing, drawing, dancing, learning, playing and cuddling with my cats, meditating, cooking, helping a friend or student figure out a problem, among other activities.

Csikszentmihalyi has spent years studying the lives of ordinary people like me to find the moments when we feel flow. He hopes that his research will help more of us to feel flow and meaning in our lives. He has learned that we all need the right balance of skill and challenge to move into flow. Too little skill and challenge leaves us feeling apathetic. A little bit too much challenge stimulates us to develop our skills to move into a state of flow. We will also find ourselves in flow when we challenge our skills.

The activity doesn’t matter, the balance of skill and challenge does.





Engaging the Heart


Drawing by BZTAT

This is a portrait of Nutmeg by BZTAT.

Last year, Vicki Boatwright, an Ohio artist better known as BZTAT, decided to work on her craft by making a drawing a day for a month. She was looking for inspiration one day, and I told her to take a look at the pictures of the kitten we took in after someone dropped her in my yard last summer.

Nutmeg and I fell in love at first sight when we looked in each other’s eyes as Nutmeg was planning to hide under a bush. Instead of hiding, she came right to me and trusted me to protect her. I also fell in love at first sight with BZTAT’s unique style of animal art.

BZTAT met Okey in the parking lot near her art studio last year.   Okey, unlike Nutmeg, was living the life of a feral cat and had developed the wariness that comes with life on the streets. She needed food, medical care and love, but did not trust a human to treat her with respect and care. With some coaching from feral cat lovers, BZTAT was able to gain enough of Okey’s trust to bring her into the studio. Although the artist THOUGHT Okey would move on to another forever home, she soon fell in love with the fearful little cat. Okey opened up to BZTAT and her cat family, and she stayed.


Okey, by BZTAT

Now, Okey is the muse of BZTAT’s public art. Through the murals of Okey’s Promise, BZTAT wants to increase awareness of the connections between animal abuse, child abuse and domestic violence.

As with all big visions, this project needs backers. BZTAT launched a major drive to create a movement around Okey’s Promise and to raise funds to support painting six murals in six North American cities.   She is using to raise $6,000 in pledges by September 26 at 4:02 p.m. EDT.

Kickstarter allows creative people to present their projects to a wide audience to seek funding. The website also requires that a project reach the minimum financial goal of the campaign, or the pledges will not be charged to the backers’ accounts. All or nothing, they say, protects both donors and artists from the problems that arise when creative projects are underfunded.  I like the power that the Web gives to all of us to facilitate creativity, whether that means we are funding it or making art ourselves.

I pledged my support for Okey’s Promise, and as soon as I did, Cheshire Kitten (my blogging kitty) bet me that he could raise more money than I pledged by having an art auction on his own blog. We are on for a box of We Pity the Kitties salmon treats to do with as he pleases. I hope you’ll stop by Cheshire Kitten Loves Karma to check out the two weekends of drawings, jewelry, prints and the Christmas quilt CK and his anipals (and various other fellow travelers) will be auctioning on behalf of Okey’s Promise. For two weekends you’ll find a new artwork every day, mine will be auctioned first, beginning tomorrow (Thursday September 15) at 9 pm CDT.

My cats and I share BZTAT’s vision, as do our friends who contributed the work of their hands and hearts. When our hearts are engaged, we can work wonders.













Balance in a Storm


Now that I’m finally getting my sea legs in another semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about balance.

Like most American professionals, I have my toes in many ponds. The ability to balance is needed when the ponds start getting all riled up. For example, my teaching pond has been swirling wildly for the past two weeks. When this happens, I find myself particularly unsettled because I’ve been focused on self-development or home-improvement projects all summer, and no matter how I try to prepare for it, the start of the fall semester always shakes me. I guess it’s a bit like a hurricane. The forecasters tell us the hurricane is coming for days or weeks as it gathers strength over the ocean, but we can’t really imagine the force of the winds until they are upon us.

When one of my ponds — work, study, service, house, family, creative expression, fitness, spirituality — is involved with a hurricane, I seek calm in the other ponds. That means not pushing myself all out in all the things I do all at once. With hurricane winds in the work pond, I moved into maintenance mode in my yoga practice. A few times through sun salutation each morning and some gentle stretching at other times of the day. Gaps of a couple of days between sitting meditation sessions, but not so long that I get drawn too deep into the maelstrom in my mind. Drawing simple pictures. Caring for the cats. Listening to a favorite novel read by a favorite reader for about 10 minutes before I fall into sleep.

All of these gentle practices in areas that I can, and do, generally push myself to do better become calming respites while I deal with the storm on campus. I choose to let them support me while I stretch in another area.

Although I can’t always push my fitness practice, having it serves me well when other areas are super busy or chaotic. About 15 years ago, I figured out that strength in the core muscles is incredibly important. I had dropped dancing, yoga and all other fitness activities while I was working out a rough patch and had started back into exercise with sit-ups. Whatever the specialists say about the efficacy of sit-ups, the changes in my core muscles helped me stand up straighter and feel more confident that I could face the uncertainties of my present and future. I even concluded that core strength is the key to happiness.

While I’m no longer certain that happiness is a direct result of strong abs, I know that keeping up the core strength helps me negotiate conflict, lead tough meetings, paint my ceilings, wrangle cats and keep my balance whether I’m rightside up or upside down.

Start-ups and Start-overs

My week has been primarily devoted to the beginning of the academic year and to work with an enterprising group of students who are working with me to start a communications agency to serve our campus departments and organizations. We have a lot of enthusiasm and are feeling our way into how all of this is going to work. I will let you know how things go with this project as it develops.

Today, however, I would like to share with you the story of a Useful, Pleasant Lives reader who is also my friend:

RR tracks

At the age of 41, I am starting over.

After an incredible financial disaster, brought about in part by a mentally ill husband, I left my home, car, and marriage and moved back to Illinois.

Unlike many people in disastrous situations, I am fortunate that my family was instrumental in getting me out, as well as housing me until I am able to get back on my feet fully.

My job search took on a completely different tone once I started looking in Illinois.  Previously, I had been looking for a job that could support the house, all of the bills, two cars, and a husband that was virtually unemployable.  Now, I had the luxury of looking for a career that I would enjoy and be able to grow with.  I was having a very hard time remembering the last time that I have felt successful or valuable, and with the help of a dear friend, I am getting my professional groove back.

I am working as a bookseller at O’Hare Airport for $9.50 an hour.  In another two months, I will be eligible for my own medical and dental insurance.  I work 4 10-hour days each week.  The hours are long, getting there is a challenge, and the paychecks are miniscule.  But, I am working hard and doing something that I love.  I have been a bookseller since I was 15, and I am thrilled to have come full circle back to my roots.

If it was not for my loving and supportive family, I certainly would not be able to afford to work this job.  I am surrounded every day by people that work long hours as janitors, fast-food workers, and even booksellers, that are scraping and pinching to pay the rent on their meager salaries.  But, because my expenses are small right now, I am able to dive in to the job and focus on getting promoted as quickly as I can.

The challenge for me now is to determine what kind of life I want to lead.  I need space for my cats and me.   I want to entertain.  I want to travel.  I want to splurge occasionally on a great bottle of wine.    But mostly, I want to be self-sufficient again.  I am well on my way.

Useful, Pleasant Lives is generating really interesting conversations here on the blog, on Facebook and even around the office. I have such thoughtful and brave readers and friends. Thank you all for your willingness to consider the idea of Useful, Pleasant Lives. Thank you for inspiring me.

Photo © Copyright Roger Dean and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Freezer Behavior

My freezer

The top shelf was saved by accumulated frost.

I found my freezer door standing open when I went out to the garage to get a frozen dish to go with corn on the cob one day last week. First, I noticed the water in the tray in the bottom, then I touched the warm box of veggie samosas. I understood that I wasn’t going to be adding a dish to the dinner, nor would I be eating dinner any time soon.

While I was pulling wet plastic bags filled with limp food out of the freezer, I thought about the habits that led me to have to throw out numerous bags of thawed fruit that I had spent a lot of time and effort preparing for freezing three years ago. Why didn’t I eat the peaches I sliced and froze on baking sheets to keep them from freezing into a big glob? Why did I still have individually wrapped pieces of a cake that I worked weeks to perfect two years ago in the pile that was heading for the trashcan?

I spend time and money to prepare dishes ahead. I don’t like to overindulge, so I freeze small portions of delicacies that come in larger quantities than I want to eat at one sitting. Then, I keep them. And keep them. And keep them…

Recently, I read some research on gender, money and power, that helps me to understand my quirky freezer behavior. Maddy Dychtwald’s research, published in Influence: How Women’s Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World for the Better, found that women often believe that one day they will be poor (26). We tend to adopt defensive investment strategies to stave off the spectre of want, viewing money as a means to security.

Most men, however, see money as a means to freedom, according to Dychtwald’s research. The confidence men feel makes them more willing to invest aggressively because they believe they really will get rich one day.

Dychtwald also observed that many more women than men stash money in secret places, “as a hedge against economic disaster (27).”

My freezer behavior – both creating the food stash and guarding it for the long term – could stem from a defensive position I maintain toward my resources in general. I buy berries in-season and freeze them. I keep the frozen berries because I might not have the money to buy them again in the future.

I want to make sure I’ll always be able to eat what I love, and instead, I end up with spoiled food years after enjoying only a fraction of the tastiest treats. In the end, I lose because I hold on too long.

Dychtwald says that the fear of poverty is strong among women at all income levels. Like many other women, I experience “delusions of poverty,” as one of her survey respondents called this attitude. I can let the delusions continue to guide me unconsciously, or I can make conscious decisions in light of my self-knowledge. I’m going to eat as well as stash.


0 Birthdays

Birthday wineglass

Birthday wineglass ready to be filled

This year I had one of those “0” birthdays that really make you think. Mine got me thinking about the state of my finances. I have always assumed that I didn’t make enough money to ever even think about retiring because I spent my twenties gathering degrees rather than dollar bills. Now, some of my favorite colleagues have already retired, and conversation around the lunch table turns more and more often to estimations of how much longer my friends will choose to work before they retire. I used to brush those questions off, but I started getting a lot more curious as my “0” birthday approached.

I thought about going to my financial planner to work out the financial projections of where I stand in relation to financial independence. Then I thought to myself that I have been visiting financial planners for years and have usually felt like they found my financial situation somewhere between uninteresting and disturbing. I usually left their offices feeling a bit downhearted. So this time I decided to learn something more about the theory of financial planning myself. I found online courses for certification in financial planning and enrolled in the first one called “Fundamentals of Financial Planning.”

I have a fairly substantial collection of certifications, how could I lose on studying for this one? The marketing material for the program promises that financial planning is generating more jobs than most other fields in the 21st-century United States, so if I’m any good at this, I might be able to grow into a new career direction. At the very least, I can now calculate how much I have to save each month to retire in a reasonable amount of time. I emerged from the course with confidence that I can understand the financial news, ask the right questions when financing a purchase and buy financial products that will serve me well, among other things.

I found out that I’m fascinated by my own and other people’s financial behavior. Most of my degrees and certificates have something to do with understanding human behavior in society, so the Certified Financial Planner certificate will fit right in the collection when I finish it. I’m more than halfway through the second course (investment planning), and I have some plans of my own for blending all of my knowledge and experience with this new stuff to benefit myself and others like me who invested more in their human capital than their financial capital in early adulthood. I’m done with downhearted and have moved on to lionhearted.


[T]o lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow…”

–Mrs. March

Like a lot of women, I’m afraid that I haven’t made the best choices about money and other resources, or anything else for that matter. If I look at the images popular culture gives me of what success looks like — mansion, closet full of designer clothes and shoes, “A-list” invitations, handsome husband, children attending private school, nanny (anyone who has seen even one episode of Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City can extend the list) — my life seems lacking. But does the pop culture, or even the news reports, we consume daily present a version of success that matters to me? Why should I care that I don’t hold up well when compared to the Kardashian sisters?

My answer: I shouldn’t.

However, I also understand that our choices in life are influenced by the culture we consume. We engage with the stories and soak up the values they present. We think we are looking for entertainment when we pick up the latest copy of People or turn on the television after work, but we’re inadvertently picking up advice about how to be a woman, how to think about money, how to behave at work… Again, I can’t exhaust the list of areas of life advice that we pick up from pop culture in one short paragraph. We’re swimming in culture and it’s not going away.

Little Women

Photo of a 1922 edition of Little Women.

I’ve done a couple of things this year to respond to a nagging sense that I wasn’t measuring up. First, was to sign up for a course in the fundamentals of financial planning. Second, I reread Little Women.

As I got to know Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Marmie again, I realized that I had patterned a lot of my decisions on what Jo would have done (right down to her righteous anger, unfortunately). One of my friends told me she wanted to be Beth, and other women have chimed in with identifications they felt with the March sisters. This time through, Marmie’s advice emerged more clearly from the story, and I noticed that the March family didn’t spend a great deal of time in regret that they weren’t often mingling with the Kim Kardashian equivalents in 19th-century New England. They found success in sincere, loving relationships with friends and family, good food shared in good company, creativity, and service to community.

In short, useful, pleasant lives.

Photo originally published on Flickr by maryn0503. Used here under a Creative Commons license.