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How Gratitude Triggers Flow

If anxiety’s our default, how can we ever expect to find the positive in things?


[Jacob Lund —]

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Not only does gratitude create lasting change within our mindset but it also creates a fundamental change in behavior. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the word “flow.” In the 1990s, he was studying the peak performance of people around the world. He went around asking about the times when they felt or performed their best in their craft, whether that be scientists, athletes or business executives. These findings revealed that many felt their best when they were in an altered state of consciousness, a place where every single moment and decision flowed seamlessly from the last.

He found that this sense of flow they experienced could alter their sense of time, vanish their sense of self, give them complete concentration, and even merge actions and awareness. This magical consciousness had the power to inspire individuals to perform to the best of their ability, at whatever the craft.

Having an active advocate for practicing gratitude in proactive ways, I believe flow can help erase the negativity bias and upper limiting beliefs that often stand in people’s way of accomplishing great things. The sting of one defeat sits a lot heavier than the feelings of one hundred victories. We’re often more likely to remember negative memories, and because something bad happened in our past, it’s our gut instinct to expect it to happen again to us.

The world’s leading expert on peak performance, New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Steven Kotler has started to correlate gratitude and flow. Kotler writes in The Art of the Impossible that there appears to be a strong link between gratitude and a high-flow lifestyle. We can address our brain’s negativity bias by practicing gratitude daily. A research study performed by Kotler’s Flow Research Collective and USC neuroscientist Glenn Fox found that there is a strong link between gratitude and flow. They found that gratitude not only lowered peoples’ anxiety but led to confidence and the ability to push themselves to discover the “challenge-skills sweet spot.”

Challenge-skills sweet spot is when you challenge a certain skill of yours just enough to the point where it is difficult but not too difficult that you’re unable to do it. If things were too easy, we would never grow. If things are too hard, we would never attempt.

These challenge-skills sweet spots are arguably the most important trigger of flow because flow demands task-specific focus. Multitasking has been found to actually impede executive function, slow you down and ultimately negatively impact your productivity. Right now, we have a whole world of distracted, strung-out people who can’t seem to get anything done. We need a lot more focused people, people operating completely in flow who are so focused on the task at hand that they’re becoming better by the minute.

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But if anxiety’s our default, how can we ever expect to find the positive in things? How can we ever expect to get through the difficulties in life? How can we ever expect to find our flow?

A few years back, I was completely unfocused, unable to decide which of the 10 opportunities on my plate to pursue. During this time a friend of mine reminded me of the proverb: If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one. Focus is growth. That’s when I found gratitude.

I firmly believe gratitude is that solution. This type of flow induces joy, and joy sparks the urge to play. It induces positive feelings that will far outweigh any current agitations. Gratitude has been shown time and time again to reduce anxiety by lowering stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions. A recent study by psychologist Giacomo Bono found “that when high schoolers are taught about gratitude and given opportunities to practice it, they show improved mental health and wellness.” Students were able to lower their anxiety and increase academic performance by incorporating gratitude into their lives.

There are many ways to practice gratitude to achieve a high-flow life. One way is to give gratitude to someone who has hurt you. By opening up about a painful past relationship that may have paved the way for something greater, we can release anxiety and create the space for flow. Another way to practice gratitude is by writing down or talking out our gratitude with others. The key to sharing gratitude is to make your gratitude measurable and specific. Stay away from broad gratitude, like “I’m grateful for my health” or “I’m grateful for the warm weather.” Instead, narrow your focus and explain why you’re grateful for the things you are, such as “I’m grateful that I’m healthy enough to play soccer so I can teach my children how to play and spend quality time with them.”

Once you’ve increased your grateful disposition, flow will be more accessible, but it won’t just appear. You have to set the stage for flow. To do this, find a task that is engaging but doable. Make sure you’re able to focus without distractions (turn off all notifications and put your phone away). Set a goal for yourself. If your task is writing, set how long or how many words you aim to write, then begin. Remember, practice makes perfect. You may not reach a flow state every time, and that’s OK. Release your anxiety and give gratitude to yourself for trying.

To increase your gratitude practice and time in flow, it’s best to keep yourself accountable. So don’t go in this alone — instead, start these practices with a friend group, a partner or colleagues at work. Make time to share progress with each other and any difficulties or triumphs you may be facing. By practicing together, you’ll go farther than you would go alone.


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