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Sushama Kirtikar


By SUSHAMA KIRTIKAR - [email protected]

Watch a toddler stack blocks, building an impossibly teetering tower, tongue held tightly between teeth, fully engrossed in the activity, oblivious to the world around him. We can learn from this tiny tot the art of 'engagement,' one of the elements of happiness.

In the previous column, I referred to 'lasting, enduring happiness.' Encarta's definition of 'enduring' is 'persisting or surviving in the face of difficulties.' Now, we may want happiness to survive even when we are faced with difficult situations. But is it possible? If I have just been laid off from work, I am feeling miserable, I am down on the economy, the boss, myself and the whole world for good measure, then how is it remotely possible for me to hold on to happiness simultaneously? Rubbish, balderdash, you say.

Researchers tell us otherwise. Inner happiness does not have to shift dramatically because of an outside circumstance. This enduring happiness is possible if we have learned to develop and nurture it so that it thrives even in dire circumstances. So, how do we develop this seemingly unattainable ability? We start by examining one indicator of happiness: engagement.

Perhaps, you remember when you were fully absorbed doing something you love, such as reading a book, or waxing your car, and were not conscious of the passage of time. You also may remember being woken from the reverie with a rude realization, "Oh my goodness, look how late it is!" Except that was no trance. You were genuinely engaged in an activity that is close to your heart and very much aware of the present moment. That kind of focused involvement is fertile ground for happiness.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Hungarian psychologist) has coined the term 'flow' to describe this phenomenon of engagement in vivid terms. He refers to 'effortless concentration' or 'complete immersion' in a creative or playful activity. He reminds us of the other terms that we are familiar with such as an artist's rapture, mystic's ecstasy, or athlete's being in the zone. He captures the splendor of this bliss thus, "The happiness that follows flow is of our own making." Think of the power of those words. We have the ability to make ourselves happy from within. Experiencing this flow in everyday activities is a gift.

Job satisfaction is when you are able to immerse yourself in work and feel good about it, whether it is performing surgery or serving Starbucks behind a counter. Research shows that active leisure is far more satisfying and conducive to flow than loose ended free time with no goal or attention. It has to be a dynamic activity not a passive one, such as the common 'vegetating in front of the TV.' The latter causes a decline into a more feral state of mind, which becomes breeding ground for rampant negativity.

Choosing to be around family and friends willingly instead of feeling forced into a social situation lends itself to positive engagement. The likelihood of superficial interactions slips away and makes room for deeper relations. Pay attention to when you tend to employ shallow behaviors and distinguish them from when you are engaged in richer pursuits. Keep generating and increasing the latter.

If you do not have a hobby, find one. If you do not have friends, join a class or a social group where you might meet diverse people. If you do not like your job, set your sights on what you might aspire to. If you do not like the routine food you eat, look for new cuisines that may tantalize your palate. Keep reaching out for more and more involvement at the heart level in anything you do. Create a passion, nourish and cherish it. Then when things go awry, you still have your passion to draw from, to experience that deep sense of involvement that is sure to sneak in satisfaction.

"Our economy is rapidly changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy," said Dr Martin Seligman author of 'Authentic Happiness' (2002). Today, these words sound foreign in the face of our current economic crisis that is insidiously weaving hopelessness through the fabric of humanity. Yet, we must have faith in our own ability to contribute to a shift in our collective consciousness from despair toward happiness. How? A mini step: let us be engaged.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or e-mail at [email protected]

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