Monday, February 22, 2010

A little food for thought

“It is a very safe space for you isn’t it?”  Ben asked after I finished explaining how quickly time passes while I’m at the gym.

“It’s like I just get a run in and start with some weights, and before I know it, it’s already been over an hour and I need to head to the showers,” I had said.  I thought about his question for a moment and his use of the words ‘safe space.’  I quickly understood he didn’t literally mean that the space literally felt free from physical threat or danger, but rather that it was a place I felt comfortable and competent.

“Yes,” I replied. 

For him, the gym is a very intimidating space, where he is too aware of the people around him who might be watching and judging; he is unsure of how he should dress or how to operate a treadmill.  For me, it’s a place where I feel strong, where I focus on things I’m good at, and where everything else sort of goes away.   

When I complete a challenging workout and my body feels rubbery and drenched in sweat, I feel like I can take on the world.  It’s just what I need when other parts of my life feel out of control or particularly stressful. 

This, of course, got me thinking about places where we feel competent and how we move through these spaces in the course of our day and what this does to our psychological well-being.  Feeling competent is one thing – it makes us feel good about our selves, provides a feeling of self-efficacy in that domain, and gives us a boost of energy.  But what happens when we feel so competent in a space that we feel bored?  It would seem that in order for us to continue to feel engaged and energized in a space, there needs to be a certain element of challenge, to keep us from feeling like our activity (job, hobby, etc) is too easy and therefore not really worth much…and thus reducing our sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.

It reminded me of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Mike” to those who know him) was getting at when he conceptualized his idea of “flow” – which is what you experience when you are participating in an activity that balances skill and challenge, and time seems to cease to exist.  Everything else falls away in favor of your focus on the task at hand.  

Although these flow experiences require a bit of up-front energy (think of what it feels like to drag yourself to the gym instead of staying at home on the couch), participating in them results in feeling energized.  Though I had always thought Mike’s concept of flow was a remarkably astute observation of human motivation and productivity, it began to occur to me that maybe it is indeed at the crux of happiness – that engaging in activities that offer just enough challenge to feel somewhat difficult, yet we feel competent enough to try, elevates our mood and provides a sense of enjoyment.

For example, I feel competent at the gym because I’ve had a lot of experience with running, rowing, and weight-training.  I have little trouble logging a four- or five-mile run on any given day and this makes me feel good… but not for long.   

It gets boring.   

So, then I change it up and add inclines (if I’m on a treadmill – or, change outdoor routes if outside) and speed changes.  I add weight to my reps or reps to my sets.  I continually up the ante, to keep feeling challenged, and my lust for the activity flourishes. 

Similarly, being gluten free has forced me to become pretty competent in the kitchen (talk about a challenge at first – whew!).  Periodically, though, I get bored.  Bored of the same cookie recipe, bored of the same meals.   

So, I up the ante; I buy meat I’ve never cooked with before, or I experiment with a spice I’ve never tried.  I wonder if I could pull off a better gluten free pie crust.  With a challenge in front of me, I can come home from a full day of work and an hour at the gym and still feel energetic enough to stand over the counter and chop vegetables. 

I've noticed that doing this keeps me feeling challenged and interested.  In turn, I feel competent and self-confident.

The funny thing about flow, though, is that the process is cyclical.  It seems that competence and skill and energy are all so intertwined as to feel like the question of the chicken and the egg – which one comes first?  They are so dependent on one another that you could find yourself in a delicious feed-back loop of challenge-competence-energy.  On the other hand, if you find yourself in a space where you are seriously lacking in any of these, figuring out how to jump into the loop can seem daunting, doesn’t it?    

If you aren’t experienced with baking, for example, starting the gluten free diet and suddenly being faced with baking your own gluten free baked goods can seem especially foreign.  Maybe you don’t even own measuring cups or a muffin tin.  (As a side – this can be a blessing actually, because then you aren’t faced with donating or otherwise getting rid of your plastic or silicone bake-ware previously contaminated with gluteny flours).   As you set out to bake some gluten free muffins, the balance between challenge and competence might feel horribly weighted towards the challenge side of the scale – almost enough so that you don’t even want to start.   You feel an unnecessary amount of trepidation for the task in front of you; wondering if you have all the supplies you will need, wondering weather there are things about baking (and baking gluten free) that you don’t know you don’t know.

These situations seem to require the most amount of up-front energy to start. 
Once you’ve had a few good and bad experiences under your belt, however, your sense of competency grows, and you find yourself excited to bake a batch of muffins you know will turn out well.  Then, you feel enough mastery over muffins to want to move on to pie crusts.

It seems to make sense.  As we move through our day, into various spaces and activities, the more activities we undertake that contain an appropriate balance of challenge and skill, the more opportunity we have to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments.  Understandably, we will encounter a number of situations where the challenge feels a little outside of our ability, but if we muster through these difficult situations, as uncomfortable as they might seem, we might turn these activities into equally safe spaces in the future.  
Just a little food for thought :) 

P.S. The picture at the top is one I took at the Olympic ruins in Greece - it's the archway leading into the auditorium; I imagine Olympic athletes all vary slightly in the balance between challenge and skill they feel upon entering competition.  


GF Gidget said...

Wonderful and so true!

Stephanie said...

I totally feel this way in the kitchen. Wish I could feel quite so good about exercising though! My latest challenge has been to make more time for trying new recipes to keep things fresh! Thanks for the food for thought :)