Science: How to Get into the "Flow" and Do What Makes You Happiest

Researchers study the "paradox of happiness" to find out how get into "flow activities" that would make us happiest.

Science: How to Get into the "Flow" and Do What Makes You Happiest


In psychology, “flow activities” are ones that would presumably make us the happiest. They are activities like sports or cooking that require more work on our part but are characterized by full immersion and focus. A new paper argues that we are often faced with a dilemma - while studies show how engaging in “flow activities” would make us happier, we tend to spend more of our free time on passive activities, like Facebooking or watching tv. 

In two studies, researchers L. Parker Schiffer and Tomi-Ann Roberts at the Claremont Graduate University and Colorado College, conducted a survey of about 300 people to find out what they thought of different types of activities. These ranged from passive like listening to music to flow-inducing like making art. As the paper explained, “‘flow’ activities require clear rules, challenge, a high investment of energy.” 

The participants had to rate whether they found the activities enjoyable or daunting as well as how often they engaged in them. Another question related to which particular activities the participants regarded as providing lasting happiness.

The answers revealed that whatever people thought would require more effort would also bring more happiness. But people were still more likely to spend their time in passive activities because they found them easier to get into and more enjoyable. On the flip side, flow activities were seen as harder to start up, even if generally better for you. It’s just easier to stay sitting on the couch than getting up to run, which might be quite tiring and even painful at first.

To be able to navigate this paradox of happiness, researchers propose techniques that could help reduce the initial effort required to get into a flow activity like going to the gym. They recommend you do things like choosing a gym near your house and preparing your workout clothes the night before. Or if you want to get into painting or have something to write - set up your writing or painting materials in advance. Just doing that much can help get the process underway and make it easy to start doing something you will find ultimately very rewarding. 

The researchers also suggest using “controlled consciousness” - mindfulness and meditation techniques to get the ball rolling before a flow activity. While the paper advocates for future research to come up with more techniques that would help us engage in happiness-creating “flow” activities, they do warn that there are high stakes involved here that could prevent us from achieving happiness due to a “pursuit of hedonism”:

“People know that flow activities facilitate happiness better than more passive leisure and yet they are not doing these activities because it seems they do not know how to overcome the activation energy or transition costs required to pursue true enjoyment. This disjunction perhaps leads us to assume that happiness is going to happen to us as an outcome of our pursuit of hedonism. Thus, we develop a more passive approach to happiness, opting for the easier pleasurable activities that require less energy and are less daunting than high-investment ow activities. “

Cover photo: Indian schoolchildren, their face and bodies painted as tigers, run at a park in Bangalore on August 1, 2015, during an awareness programme about the endangered tiger species. (Photo credit: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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