Outside Room 15: Chocolate Ice Cream vs. "Flow"

By Christine Carter | January 25, 2007 | 1 comment

Once upon a time there was a newspaper columnist who spent most of her time trying to figure out how to live happily. One day, while watching her daughter rub her palms raw on the monkey bars, she met a PhD candidate who was doing the very same thing. That is, watching her daughter rub her palms raw while trying to figure out how to live happily. While the columnist had been relying mostly on anecdotal evidence to support her theories, the PhD candidate had been pulling all nighters for six years, forced, as academics are, to pin her theories to studies and statistics. The writer ran an idea past the researcher and a conversation started that, six months later, is still going strong every weekday outside Room 15.

KC: If I inventoried my kids' moods, I'd bet that watching TV and eating ice cream and getting to play at a friend's house longer would be the high points of every week. Is that happiness? And if it is, what's so hard about that?

CCM: Who said happiness is hard? For kids I think it comes quite easily, even to moody American teenagers—70% report being quite happy.

There's definitely happiness—in the form of pleasure—that comes from laughing at a TV show, snarfing down ice cream, and playing with a buddy. A happy life is full of positive feelings, and those can easily come from a television show, an ice cream cone (which has the added benefit of triggering a physiological response in the brain's pleasure center) and a playdate. The thing is, happy for how long? The feelings from the TV show fade. That ice cream is gonna boomerang when all that sugar dumps them. The one thing you mentioned that has a chance at generating lasting or meaningful happiness, in my opinion, is the playdate.

KC: So that's why I'm having so much fun right now. Because I'm playing with my friend.

CCM: Well, you might be having just as much fun watching a funny movie while eating ice cream, but I'd say we've got two things going on right now that have been shown to create more lasting happiness. The first is "flow," that blissful state when you are exercising your unique strengths. I love how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high-ee"), the world's foremost expert on "flow," describes it:

[A] person in flow is completely focused…Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. When a person's entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification.

KC: I love flow–like when you forget to eat or when you leave your coffee in the microwave all morning because you got going on something and you never even heard the beep or missed the caffeine.

CCM: Exactly, and kids have flow too. Look at our three year-olds, Molly and Claire, and how they get lost in their pretend play. Joint imaginative play is hard for three year-olds, but they have so much in common [mainly, obsession with the Wizard of Oz] that what is normally difficult is actually, for them, the ideal developmental challenge. That's a key aspect of flow: the challenge cannot be too difficult, which just leads to frustration and anxiety, or too easy, which would lead to boredom and loss of engagement.

KC: Just like Goldilocks and her porridge: not too hot, not too cold, just right.

CCM: That's it. And I'd argue that the happiness Claire and Molly experience from their play far surpasses what they'd get out of watching TV—which takes no skill whatsoever. Their imaginative play is actually an application of their unique skills and talents.

KC: It's the difference between fleeting pleasure and happiness, the difference a quick tickle and a long hug.

CCM: I think this is one of the important lessons in the childhood roots of adult happiness: kids learn to achieve flow when we enable them to participate in the activities likely to produce it–namely, those things that both challenge them and provide them with some immediate feedback.

KC: So that's the name of the game, helping them find flow. I got it. Makes me happy just thinking about it.

CCM: I gotta say that there is another really obvious thing happening here that is making us happy: we've got a meaningful social connection (aka friendship). Hanging out with you outside Room 15 and talking about life and happiness makes me feel connected, both to you and to our larger community of families and teachers.

KC: So let's talk about connection, because some connections feel good and some don't. You know? I have some questions about that.

CCM: It'll have to wait for next week.

References & Further Resources

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow : The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York, BasicBooks. Quote above on pp. 31-32.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., K. R. Rathunde, et al. (1993). Talented Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y., Cambridge University Press.

a little tickler about the correlation between friendship and happiness…
Diener, E. and M. E. P. Seligman (2002). "Very Happy People." Psychological Science 13(1): 81-84.
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About The Author

Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine Books, 2015) and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents (Random House, 2010). A former director of the GGSC, she served for many years as author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness.


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