When I see my nephews running around in the playground, huge smiles splitting their faces, I wonder how and why our childish joy diminishes as we age. One reason for this is that kids lives and brains are better set up for flow states to occur. There are things that just happen in our brains as we age, that evolution has pre-programmed for survival. But through recognizing what these things are, we can design a life that blends in the appropriate amount of child-like joy and abandon, and achieve more flow in life.
Step 1: Choose to be curious
Curiosity opens doors into new and amazing realms of knowledge and fun. Close-mindedness slams this same door shut.
They say that children’s brains are like sponges for information. Some of this is down to different brain wave activity. EEG tests on children have shown that their predominant waking brain wave hovers around Alpha, whereas in adults Beta is considered the wave of normal waking consciousness. Beta at the low end is connected with rational thinking, judgement and logic, and at the high end to stress and anxiety. Alpha waves are the border of the conscious and subconscious, the zone most connected to intuition and programming of the mind for success. So kids spend more of their time in a brainwave zone that enables access to their subconscious and use their intuition.
Studies have also shown that children have a less developed pre-frontal cortex (PFC) than adults. The PFC is what creates our sense of self. In particular the Dorso-lateral pre frontal cortex (DLPFC) is the part of the brain associated with controlling impulse and self-monitoring. With an under-developed DLPFC, children do not yet have to listen to their inner critic, resulting in them being far more bold and able to imagine new possibilities. This is why kids just don't care how silly they look as long as they are having fun- their brains are not yet wired for inhibition.
Consider also that in flow states adults experience "transient hypo-frontality"- meaning that the PFC and DLPFC temporarily shuts down. The diminishing of our sense of self- image and our inner critic is one of the most stand out hallmarks of the flow state. Curiosity and flow can be considered to have a symbiotic and self-perpetuating relationship. Flow states enhances curiosity, which enhances flow, which enhances curiosity.
Do you have any adult friends that exude a sense of child-like enthusiasm for life? I do, and I'm grateful for it, as it is a lot of fun hanging out with them: they are infinitely curious and just don't care what other people think.
Step 2. Do things that are fun, just for the fun of it
Kids are always doing things, for no other reason apart from fun. When was the last time you saw an adult jumping into a big puddle or on a stack of crunchy leaves. Actions have to be linked to reason when we get older and more sensible. The other day I went for a surf with my friend Mark who is a 5 year old in a 33 year old body. The moment our feet hit the sand, and he saw the waves, he couldn’t stop himself from sprinting toward the ocean while squealing like a kid (a little girl to be precise). I joined him of course, and had a great time squealing and running then surfing. It was pure, childlike playtime- except my Mum didn't call me in for dinner.
One of the things that boosts flow more than anything is simple, pure fun. This isn't rocket science. Flow comes easy when we are playing and doing things we love doing. So do more of this stuff! And consider the wise words of Ernest at the top of this post.
3. Be present
If you start playing with some kids on the beach and they are building a sandcastle or just digging a hole, chances are that they are fully focused on that task. They are probably not thinking about what the stock market is doing, or how many likes their facebook post has. They are focused on digging holes or building sandcastles. This is one of the most powerful lessons we can learn about flow. We cannot get anywhere near flow without the focus that comes with being present in the moment. This means when you are digging a hole, your mind has to be present on the digging of the hole to be in flow. It is not flying away to the laptop, the shopping list, or wherever your mind likes to fly to.
People like to think they can multitask. Well, turns out we can't. Numerous studies have proven that the brain is designed to single task. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. In reality is just the concurrent doing of tasks in small, inefficient chunks. Yeah I know we can all drive our cars whilst fiddling with the ipod, but are we really do either of those things well? Multitasking produces inferior results for everyone. All this "live in the moment", be present talk is in danger of becoming overused cliché which is a shame, as really it is the most simple and profound gateway to joy, flow and happiness.
4. Live a more simple life
Kids have a simple life. Mostly because someone takes care of the tricky things, but also because they have not (yet) added superfluous, attention sucking crap to their lives. Rather than losing time looking at investment portfolios or worrying about their self-image, kids are focused on the simplicity of the present moment.
They do not have the same choices we have as adults. But, the amount of choice we have in life is a choice- we can choose to remove some of it by adopting a minimalist attitude to everything from furniture to friends. Particularly by minimizing and condensing down the number of activities, intentions and goals we have, we can create ourselves more time to focus a few key elements. This stripping away of the superfluous creates a landscape ripe for flow states. Identify the 3-4 goals/intentions that really mean something to you, and forget the rest.
So there we have it. 4 things to learn from the little ones. There are many, many more I'm sure but this is a decent start. I'll meet you at the swings, bring your wellies, I spotted some fun looking puddles.