Employ Gratitude to Find Flow

Course excerpt from In the Zone: Finding Flow Through Positive Psychology

Flow is the term first used by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – now a recognized expert on the topic – to describe “highly-focused mental states” that are characterized by almost complete absorption in an activity that is inherently rewarding.

Flow happens when what we are doing so captivates us, almost enthralls us, that for a moment (and sometimes hours), our awareness and actions merge, and movements flow effortlessly without conscious thought, direction, or intervention. Our skills almost perfectly match the demands of the task, and we experience the challenge in front of us with the delighted exaltation that perfecting our strengths provides. As we do, self-consciousness quiets and we feel what can only be described as a “passive mind, and active body.” In this self-transcendent state, many describe feelings of euphoria, ecstasy, and elation. And while flow is often attributed to extreme athletes, the most creative minds, and exceptional performances, the experience is universal to us all – we are all wired toward self-actualization.

There are many reasons that flow has been called the most desirable state we can be in. While you already know that dopamine has a profound effect on our mood, immunity, ability to focus, impulse control, and motivation levels, and that the endorphins released during flow have a pain reducing effect, it shouldn’t be surprising that flow would also make us feel more grateful. But perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

GratitudeTo understand just how flow affects our feelings of gratitude, let’s first take a look at what gratitude is. In its most literal definition, gratitude is about the feeling of having enough. When we feel grateful, we feel not just as if we are enough, but also that we have something to give to others. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, makes us feel as though we are not enough. When we feel self-conscious we doubt our abilities and even more importantly, our worth to others. For that reason, self-consciousness dampens gratitude. But remember that one of the characteristics of flow is the absence of self-consciousness. When immersed in the state of flow, our critical inner voice is decidedly quiet, and as our awareness and actions merge (another characteristic of flow), self-doubt, fear, and worry ceases, and what we have left is a feeling of profound enjoyment, and profound gratitude. Not only do we realize new strengths, skills, and capacities, but what emerges is the best version of ourselves – all things to be grateful for.

But flow also seems to affect gratitude levels in another very profound way – it seems to counteract greed. Greed is the feeling of not having enough – in many ways the opposite of gratitude – and when we try to quench greed through material gains, we set ourselves up for more greed for a host of reasons. For one thing, we measure our material worth against that of others, and when we do this, we can always find someone who has more than us. Further, what we can gain materially is limited by our financial means, which, for most of us, is somewhat out of our control, leaving us with the dismaying feeling of wanting and not having. And material gains, while we often think will make us feel better, simply don’t. While we may get a temporary boost in happiness levels (and perhaps feelings of gratitude), it is short lived. As Gregg Easterbrook (2004) explains in, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, living beyond a comfortable level – which Easterbrook explains is just enough to survive comfortably – increased material worth doesn’t affect happiness levels at all.

On the other hand, when we try to counteract greed and cultivate gratitude through flow, we get the opposite outcome. The boost in happiness levels that comes with flow, unlike with material gains, endures indefinitely. And the rewards we receive in flow come in the internal form – we get to see a new, better version of ourselves unveiled before us – unlike material rewards which are external and therefore can be lost. Yet perhaps the most important difference between material wealth and flow is this: with material wealth we are limited by financial means, in flow we are only limited by the effort we put in. And effort, unlike financial means, is within our control. Therefore, if we want more flow (and more of the mood boost that it brings) we can simply choose to enact its three requirements: clear goals, immediate feedback, and a challenge that is just slightly higher than our skill level.

So how can you use flow to help your client employ gratitude? The answer is simple. The next time your client feels greed, suggest that she turn to flow. Instead of purchasing a new pair of shoes, appliance, toy, car, or anything, have her choose an activity that she enjoys and then set flow’s three conditions: clear goals, immediate feedback, and a challenge just slightly beyond her skill level. And because the benefits of flow increase as skills improve, the experience tends to be very compelling – meaning that the more time your client spends in flow, the more she will be drawn to it – realizing that its benefits endure over time. Most importantly, when you teach your client how to use flow to cultivate gratitude, you teach her a powerful way to cope with setbacks.

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In the Zone: Finding Flow Through Positive PsychologyIn the Zone: Finding Flow Through Positive Psychology is a 2-hour online continuing education (CE) course that offers a how-to guide on incorporating flow into everyday life. According to the CDC, four out of ten people have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Further, the APA reports that most people suffer from moderate to high levels of stress, and according to SAMSHA, adult prescription medication abuse (primarily to counteract attention deficit disorders) is one of the most concerning health problems today. And while clinicians now have a host of resources to mitigate distress and reduce symptomatology, the question remains: how do clinicians move clients beyond baseline levels of functioning to a state of fulfillment imbued with a satisfying life purpose? The answer may lie in a universal condition with unexpected benefits. This course will explore the concept of flow, also known as optimal performance, which is a condition we are all capable of, yet seldom cultivate. When in flow we experience a profound and dramatic shift in the way we experience ourselves, our capabilities, and the world around us. Our focus sharpens, our strengths are heightened, we feel an intense sense of euphoria and connection to the world around us, and we often realize capabilities we didn’t know were possible. For clients, flow doesn’t just help them become more capable, it dramatically improves their lives – teaching them not just to expect more from themselves, but how to cultivate the very conditions that make expecting more possible. This course, packed with exercises, tips, and tools, will demonstrate just how flow can be incorporated into your everyday life, and used to help your clients move from simply surviving to a life that harnesses and builds upon their own unique potential to thrive. Course 21-11 | 2016 | 30 pages | 15 posttest questions

This online course provides instant access to the course materials (PDF download) and CE test. After enrolling, click on My Account and scroll down to My Active Courses. From here you’ll see links to download/print the course materials and take the CE test (you can print the test to mark your answers on it while reading the course document). Successful completion of the online CE test (80% required to pass, 3 chances to take) and course evaluation are required to earn a certificate of completion.
Professional Development Resources is approved to sponsor continuing education (CE) by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC ACEP #5590); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB #1046, ACE Program); the Florida Boards of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy, and Mental Health Counseling (#BAP346) and Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); and the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678).

Gratitude Is About the Future, Not the Past


gratitudeWhen life’s got you down, gratitude can seem like a chore. Sure, you’ll go through the motions and say the right things — you’ll thank people for help they’ve provided or try to muster a sense of thanks that things aren’t worse. But you might not truly feel grateful in your heart. It can be like saying “I’m happy for you” to someone who just got the job you wanted. The words and the feelings often don’t match.

This disconnect is unfortunate, though. It comes from a somewhat misguided view that gratitude is all about looking backward — back to what has already been. But in reality, that’s not how gratitude truly works. At a psychological level, gratitude isn’t about passive reflection, it’s about building resilience. It’s not about being thankful for things that have already occurred and, thus, can’t be changed; it’s about ensuring the benefits of what comes next. It’s about making sure that tomorrow, and the day after, you will have something to be grateful for.

One of the central findings to emerge from psychological science over the past decade is that certain emotions serve socially adaptive functions. When we experience emotions like compassion, admiration, and shame, they drive us to alter our behaviors toward others. As Adam Smith intuited long ago, these innate feelings, or moral sentiments, impel us to act in ways that benefit our fellow humans — to engage with them in behaviors that foster the common good. And in the case of gratitude, the evidence couldn’t be clearer. In the face of loss, tragedy, or disaster, few psychological mechanisms can do more to benefit an individual’s or a society’s ability to thrive.

Much research, including from my own lab, confirms that gratitude toward someone for past assistance increases the odds that we’ll return the favor and help a benefactor in need. That’s fine, but in the case of many types of challenges, pairing previous benefactors and recipients isn’t an easy or efficient process. There are lots of people — those dealing with the flooding in Colorado or those struggling to put food on their tables, for example — that need help immediately. What is required for people and societies to recover rapidly, then, are mechanisms that make people help others they don’t know well — mechanisms that push people to pay it forward to strangers.

This is where the power of gratitude really resides. Its benefits come from an ability to create cooperation and support out of thin air. In my lab, we’ve shown this using a simple framework. We stage events where individuals experience a problem and then have someone come to their aid just when it looked as if all hope were lost. The result? Lots of gratitude toward the fixer. But that’s not the interesting part. It’s what happens next that is the surprise. When these newly-grateful souls subsequently run into strangers who ask for help, they not only more readily agree to aid them than do individuals who weren’t feeling grateful, but also expend a lot more effort in the act of helping itself. The more gratitude people feel, the more likely it is they’ll help anyone, even if it’s someone they’ve never laid eyes on before.

These benefits aren’t limited to direct face-to-face encounters. Given the option, grateful people will make financial decisions that “lift all boats” even when offered options to increase their own profit at another’s expense. In these times, where the click of a button can move funds to anywhere in the world where they’re needed, gratitude-induced giving can have a powerful effect.

Such occurrences of indirect reciprocity — the extending of help to new people — is known to kick cooperation in a group into high gear. In the face of individual or societal tragedies, then, any phenomenon that can enhance such indiscriminate paying-it-forward stands as a key to resilience.

So next time you have the opportunity to say “thank you,” don’t let it ring hollow. Embrace the gratitude; feel it as deeply as you can, because in so doing, you’re actually increasing the odds that in the future we’ll all have more for which to be grateful. On the deepest, unconscious level, gratitude is really about being grateful for the actions that are yet to come.

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-desteno/gratitude-research_b_3932043.html

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