Category Archives: Psychology

The 10 Characteristics of Achieving Flow

Rise of SupermanWe’ve all seen athletes that appear to be operating on a different level than anyone else. We typically use the term “in the zone” to describe this focused state. The athlete or individual can’t seem to do anything wrong. It’s Michael Jordan in the ’86 classic against the Celtics. It’s Shaun White in the middle of an X-Games run.

This state of being “in the zone” is now referred to as flow, an altered state of consciousness that seemingly allows us to achieve the impossible. We’ve all likely experienced it at one time or another whether it was when we’re participating in a sport or putting words down on a page; the work seems…effortless.

In his book, Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler describes the 10 characteristics of achieving flow:

1. Clear goals: Expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities.

Clear goals is one of the most important aspects of flow for three reasons:

  1. It identifies the task
  2. It aligns the task with our belief (why we’re doing it)
  3. It focuses our attention

The last portion, the bit on attention, might be the most impactful. You may have seen the invisible gorilla experiment before. Participants are asked to watch a video featuring a team group of basketball players passing a ball back and forth. The task is to count the number of passes throughout the entire video. In the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla costume walks into the middle of the circle and then walks off. Amazingly, in test after test, people fail to spot the gorilla.

By setting extremely clear goals for the task at hand, we can avoid the “invisible gorilla effect” and hone our attention on the now.

2. The challenge level and skill level should both be high.

3. Concentration: A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.

4. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: The merging of action and awareness.

In many cases, flow states can generate out of body experiences. This isn’t just one person’s account either. It’s consistently reported by the world’s top performers when they’re performing at their best. Brain research has indicated that these out of body experiences are plausible.

The pattern of brain activity believed to create out of body experiences was first identified in Tibetan Buddhists that reported “absolute unitary being,” or basically feeling one with everything.

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and neuropsychologist Eugene D’Aquili put both Buddhists and nuns inside of a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scanner. The scientists discovered a critical part of the brain, the orientation association area (OBB), that goes hypofrontal, meaning it decreases in activity. Kotler explains:

When functioning normally, the OAA is a navigation system. It judge angles and distances, maps course trajectories, and keeps track of our body’s exact location. But to do this last part, the superior parietal lobe must also produce a boundary line: the border of self, the division between finite “us” and the infinite “not us” that is the rest of the universe.

5. Distorted sense of time: One’s subjective experience of time is altered.

This relates back to the out of body experiences explained above. Time, like our sense of self, is moderated by multiple brain areas across the prefrontal cortex. Since some of these brain areas are hypoactive during periods of flow (they have less activity), our ability to compute time is disrupted. Instead, our sense of time is normally captured in rhythms of the activity at hand. Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow:

The objective, external duration we measure with reference to outside events like night and day, or the orderly progression of clocks, is rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the activity.…

6. Direct and immediate feedback: Successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.

Immediate feedback “refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect,” explains Kotler. In moments of flow, we have a direct sense of whether our actions are generating the desired effect or not, and we can immediately adjust if necessary. Take, for example, Laird Hamilton surfing the wave zone Teahupoo. While he’s in the middle of the wave, each action Laird makes has immediate repercussions.

To apply this principle to our own work, Kotler advises tighter feedback loops:

Think daily reviews. Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops— stock analysis, psychiatry , and medicine— even the best get worse over time.

7. Balance between ability level and challenge: The activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.

Scientists have identified an optimum level of emotional activation (straddling anxiety and boredom) known as the flow channel. Achieving this state requires an activity that is difficult enough to prevent boredom but not too difficult that we get overloaded with fear. Scientists have actually quantified how difficult a task must be:

…the general thinking is about 4 percent…That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills.

The difficulty level of a task is important because it keeps us focused on the activity at hand. If you’re doing something with a low difficulty level, your mind tends to drift (think: driving to work, which you’ve likely done thousands of times). When the activity is just past our ability level, it creates a degree of uncertainty; we aren’t sure exactly what’s going to happen. This triggers a release of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter that heightens awareness (among many other effects).

8. A sense of personal control over the situation.

9. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortlessness.

Peak experiences, also termed flow experiences, have been shown to be a necessary element of happiness. In addition, intrinsically rewarding activities have been shown to reduce the hedonic adaptation effect allowing us to stay happier for longer.

10. Absorption: narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.

Why Keeping Up With the Joneses is Futile

If only [blank], I would be truly happy.

We’ve all uttered that phrase at one point during our lives. Deep down, we know we’re telling ourselves a lie. A few days or maybe weeks after the new toy or promotion, we’re right back to baseline looking for the next thing to attach to our value of true happiness.

Our return to a baseline level of happiness after a positive event has been dubbed hedonic adaptation in scientific terms. In short, attaining a higher level of material wealth or being blessed with favorable life circumstances does boost our level of happiness for the near future. However, after only a short time, we re-acclimate to a baseline level of happiness.

For example, an experiment conducted in 1978 “reported that winners of $50,000 to $1,000,000 [remember, this is 1978] in the Illinois State Lottery were no happier from less than 1 month to 18 months after the news than those who had experienced no such windfall.”

Hedonic adaptation doesn’t just apply to positive circumstances; it can apply to negative ones as well. Whereas it feels like a specific event or circumstance (like a divorce for example) might drag us down forever, research shows we can actually be pretty adept at rebounding back from misfortune.

A study on hemodialysis patients found, that on average, they’re able to rebound back to a normal level of health. However, both patients and control subjects asked to estimate their level of well-being on hemodialysis tended to over-exaggerate how large of an effect the condition would have on their lives. This indicates we’re poor estimators of our own happiness, and we project these estimations on others that are experiencing misfortune:

Sackett and Torrance (1978) demonstrated that there are other serious health conditions that do not seem to be as badly experienced by the people living with them as healthy people would expect. (Source)

To summarize – We’re poor estimators of our own happiness; fortuitous changes in our lives tend to produce less happiness than we would think; and we can rebound from misfortune better than we might guess beforehand. The question still looms:

How the hell can I be happier?

Even with hedonic adaptation in place, researchers still believe we can get happier. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, and colleagues created the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model and identified several ways to increase happiness for good.

1. Experience more positive emotions and events.

Positive emotions and events have been shown to slow hedonic adaptation, particularly when they’re achieved in the right set of circumstances. Here are three follow-up tips from researchers:

Focus on performing acts of kindness:

Philanthropic acts have been shown to activate brain areas that are associated with pleasure and euphoria.

Nurture relationships you already have.

…the dynamic nature of social relationships may provide individuals unique opportunities to multiply positive events and positive emotions in their lives.

Pursue intrinsic, self-determined goals (also a requirement for achieving a flow state)

Intrinsic goals ensures that we enjoy the process, not just the final outcome.

2. Contain your aspirations.

…higher aspirations speed up adaptation because as they increase, people need more positive events and emotions just to maintain their original level of happiness.

If aspirations are too high, happiness can become a never-ending pursuit. No amount of positive events or emotions will be enough to match your aspired level of happiness. Intrinsic goals come into play again here.

If individuals enjoy the pursuit of the goal, rather than just its attainment, they will be less focused on the end product of “increased happiness”

3. Experience variety.

“Variety is the spice of life,” or so the saying goes. We’ve seen how variety can actually increase your life span (or at least, how you experience your life). It also plays a crucial role in your happiness:

If a person decides to express gratitude more frequently, but ends up writing gratitude letters to the same person every week, he will obtain less and less of a boost in happiness with each letter.

How exactly do you experience variety while also simultaneously sticking to some semblance of a routine? Lyubomirsky offers a few options:

  • Have several activities going at once. It takes longer to become bored when you’re focusing on a variety of activities.
  • Vary how you accomplish the same activity. For example, while increasing fitness is the overall goal, you can mix-up the way it’s accomplished by taking different classes and choosing difference exercises.
  • Alternate activities. On the topic of happiness, this could mean practicing gratitude for a few weeks and then switching to acts of kindness. By constantly switching back and forth, your mind has less of a chance to adapt to one or the other.

One important takeaway, the focus on variety should be based on experiences, not material items. Buying a different shirt every week doesn’t lead to the same benefits. The variety experienced with physical objects normally entails interacting with that object versus meeting someone new or learning a new skill. The increased variety of experiences leads to an increase in happiness.

4. Practice appreciation.

Appreciating a life change, such as beginning a new positive activity or set of activities, slows down adaptation, allowing people to sustain the boost in happiness from that change.

It’s impossible to appreciate aspects of your life if you don’t take the time to acknowledge they’re there. Taking a moment out of your day to take stock of the amazing elements in your life can greatly boost your level of happiness. If you don’t know where to start, grab a journal and make a note of 1-3 things you’re thankful for each day.

Interested in more? Sonja appeared on The Greater Good podcast back in February of 2013. It’s worth a listen.

Photo credit: Banksy

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow and Happiness

About 30% of the people surveyed on the United States are very happy.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of the flow experience, presents that statistic in his TED talk titled “Flow, the Secret to Happiness.” This level of happiness has persisted over tens of years even though income has tripled. This seems to confirm a lesson many of us claim to know, but few actually practice:

[Past a certain point] increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect how happy people are.

In his book Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler describes that flow experiences might be the foundation of true happiness:

In fact, when Csikszentmihalyi dove deeper into the data, he discovered that the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt their lives had the most meaning, were those who had the most peak experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi bases this assertion off of the thousands of interviews he and his team have done with individuals from all walks of life from composers to figure skaters and writers. His TED talk on flow and happiness is definitely worth a watch.


How Novelty Helps You Live Longer

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing


Are We Learning All Wrong? A Look at Interleaving

When you normally try to learn a skill, you focus on one particular aspect at a time. If you’re student in school focused on multiplication, your homework will likely consist of multiplication problems of varying difficulties. Similarly, if you’re trying to improve your basketball game, you might focus on shooting free throws for an hour. Then, move to three point shots.

This type of learning is referred to as block practice referring to the fact that the skills are broken down and focused on one at a time. Research is now indicating that even though we’ve been using this method for many years, it might not be the best method to learn.

Researchers Tim Lee and Dick Schmidt co-wrote an influential textbook, Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis, popularizing the a technique referred to as interleaving or “variable practice.”

Interleaving is a form of learning wherein participants practice skills as a mixed bag rather than one at a time. With interleaving, a student might practice a multiplication problem alongside several addition and subtraction problems. In the basketball example, you may take a free-throw shot. Then, step back and throw up a three. Finally, you might charge the basket for a lay-up.

Interleaving seems like quite the change of pace from the normal block practice in the school setting. Doug Rohrer, a psychologist from the University of South Florida, explains the problem with the traditional teaching method:

“There are always two steps to solving a problem: identify the solving strategy, and then execute it,” Rohrer said. “In blocked study, [students] know that this is a unit on, say, the Pythagorean theorem, so they don’t need to choose a strategy. All they have to do is execute, over and over.” (Source)

So, to see how interleaving actually works in the classroom, Rohrer approached a seventh-grade classroom in Tampa Bay with a simple experiment. For one group, the teacher interleaved their homework assignments mixing up problems from the current lesson alongside techniques they learned months previously. The other group received traditional “block” homework focused only on the lesson at hand.

At the end of the experiment, the children were given a test. On those concepts that were practiced in an interleaving context, the students scored 72% compared to 38% for those learned through block practice.

Additional research has aimed to identify exactly what makes interleaving so effective. A recent paper identifies the major benefit to interleaving as discriminative contrast. Through practicing different concepts together, aspiring learners can identify the differences between two concepts rather than solely being exposed to the similarities that block learning provides. By highlighting what’s different about two concepts, students gain a better understanding of the idea overall.

We’ve been drilled for years that block practice is the preferred method for learning. Normally, we don’t have a great idea of how we learn best.

The great majority of the participants in the present study, as well as those in prior studies…judged that they had learned more effectively with blocked than with interleaved study. (Source)

This understanding led researchers to conclude with this piece of advice for anyone trying to learn a new skill:

If your intuition tells you to block, you should probably interleave.

Photo credit: Matthew Paulson

Mental Mistakes: The Availability Heuristic

This is the first part of a series on the topic of mental mistakes, thinking errors that we make on a daily basis. Read the others here.

How frequently would you guess car accidents occur?

To make this kind of judgement, you’re not going to try to count the number of car accidents you’ve seen over a 24 hour period then use some sort of complicated mental algorithm to expand that number into a general frequency. That would be mentally exhausting.

Instead, you’re going to use a shortcut. You’re going to make an educated guess, and more than likely, you’re going to be very wrong.

We make hundreds of mistakes like this on a daily basis, mistakes than can be attributed to mental biases or cognitive errors. Understanding them further can provide some insight into various aspects of our lives such as:

  • How the media shapes your perception of the world
  • Why you can’t accurately estimate the frequency of seven-letter words that have “n” in the sixth position

To understand these items and more, we have to take an insider look at one of the most common cognitive errors we make on a daily basis – the Availability Heuristic.

Continue reading

How to Force Yourself to Improve

Gary Cohn owes his first job on Wall Street to a cab ride1.

Cohn was twenty-two and working as a salesman for U.S. Steel in Cleveland. On one particular day, he found himself in Long Island and decided to venture down to Wall Street. While he was there, he decided he wanted a job.

The only problem? Cohn didn’t know anything about finance.

Since he had no connections on Wall Street and little experience that would qualify him for a job, he couldn’t pursue the ordinary route of handing in a resume. So, he went after a different angle. He stood outside of the commodities exchange until he overheard a well-dressed man catching a taxi to LaGuardia. Without missing a beat, Cohn asked if they could share a cab ride.

This gave Cohn an hour in the car with a higher up in one of the top brokerage firms on Wall Street.

Throughout their conversation, Cohn discovered the firm was entering the options business. However, the higher up didn’t know the first thing about buying or selling an option. He asked Cohn how much he knew.

Malcolm Gladwell recounts Cohn’s response in David and Goliath:

When he said, ‘Do you know what an option is?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, I know everything, I can do anything for you.’

That, of course, was a lie. Cohn knew nothing about options trading. But, he was able to score an interview. He spent the next few days reading books on options trading and landed the job.

Cohn knew the best way to improve is to commit to action before you’re ready.

Continue reading

The Power of Posture & How to Harness It

When you read the title of this post, you likely sat up a bit taller or pulled your shoulders back just a bit.

As much as we tend to ignore posture during our normal day, the idea of perfect posture is ingrained in our heads since childhood. It turns out our parents may have been doing more than just instilling proper manners.

Posture has a great deal to do with how others perceive you in business situations. It can help convey confidence or portray weakness. Your posture can help you boost your income, ace that presentation, and, yes, even score your dream date. Let’s look at how you can use it to your advantage.

Continue reading

Using Constraints to Make Better Decisions (Like Walking Away From $2 Million)

Could you walk away from $2 million? How hard of a decision do you think that would be?

If you’re Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, the decision is apparently easy. “Of course!” you might say. Stone now has more than a few million in the bank thanks to his role in the social sharing company. However, Stone turned down millions of dollars when he was still poor before Twitter even came into existence.

It was October of 2005, and Stone was working at Google1. He joined the team two years prior to work on Blogger, a blogging software built by Ev Williams.

Stone would need to put in two more years before his stock options fully vested. At that time, Google was skyrocketing in popularity meaning Stone’s options were worth about $2 million.

Yet, on that day in 2005, Stone was quitting his job ready to walk away with nothing in order to join Ev on his new venture, a company called Odeo, which would later become Twitter.

To Stone, the decision was actually quite simple. He had joined Google with one goal in mind: work with Ev Williams. Since Ev had left to pursue other projects, it was time for Stone to move on as well. As Stone put it to his wife, “We didn’t move out to California so I could work at Google. We moved out here so I could work with Ev.”

To make a hard decision, Stone asked a simple question: Is staying at Google accomplishing what I set out to do in California. The answer was obviously “No.”

Stone’s simple question is a type of constraint that helped to guide his decision making.

We typically think of constraints as a negative thing. In the land of plentiful options, constraints represent a step in the wrong direction. But, when used consistently and correctly, constraints can actually help simplify many aspects of your life from what to have for dinner to whether or not you want to walk away from $2 million.

Continue reading

What a Workout Does to Your Brain

I distinctly remember the sunrises during my senior year of high school. While my classmates were sleeping, I was on the roads racking up miles with my cross country team to avoid the Florida heat. We would hit the showers then shuffle off to class. At the time, I thought this was absolute torture. Getting up early in the morning was bad enough, but exercising on top of that?

That type of activity wouldn’t be anything new at Naperville High School in Naperville, IL. The school was profiled in the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain. Naperville encourages students to attend physical education classes and offers early morning options so they can get a workout in before the first bell. As one would expect, the students have a lower obesity rate, but they’re also seeing benefits in the classroom.

To improve mental performance, many individuals resort to hard work and repetition. In turns out, they might be missing out on one of the most powerful brain boosters in the world – exercise.

Continue reading