I’m a fan of TED talks, inspiring short talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design (hence the name). TED began in 1984 as a conference and today the videos covers a vast range of topics, from science and business to cutting edge ideas and global issues.
Back in August 2021, a lucky audience in Monterey California heard organizational psychologist Adam Grant talk on “How to stop languishing and start finding flow.” Today, that talk has had over 2.6million views – and with good reason.
How are you feeling today?
Adam focusses on an issue many of us experienced during lock-down, namely a lack of motivation, direction and generally, feeling “meh”. Not depressed, not lost, just “meh”. He identified this as languishing:
“When you’re languishing, it just feels like you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield … In the early days of covid, a lot of us were struggling with fear, grief and isolation. But as the pandemic dragged on with no end in sight, our acute anguish gave way to chronic languish.”
As Adam remarked, 20 years of research had shown that languishing can disrupt focus and decrease motivation. More worrying, we might not even notice this happening, and thus be less able to pull ourselves out of a languishing state.
The solution, according to researchers, is flow. Flow, a phrase coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is a “State of total absorption in an activity.”
It doesn’t matter what the activity is, the important aspect is that you are in it. The best kind of flow depends on active participation in real life, but even that isn’t 100% required. Through playing Mario Cart with his children and family (check out the story on the TED video), Adam identified three conditions of optimal flow:
Mastery is about doing something well, and keeping the momentum going to do it better today than yesterday. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s a small achievement, such as baking your first sourdough loaf or growing a new plant from seed.
Mindfulness is part of mastery. You can’t concentrate fully on one activity if you’re constantly checking your emails or getting notifications or switching tasks every few minutes.
According to Professor Ashley Whillans of the Global Happiness Council and the Workplace and Well-Being Initiative at Harvard University, constant interruptions by technology can literally shred your day into “time confetti”. Time confetti is:
“The little bits of seconds and minutes lost to unproductive multitasking. Each bit alone is not very bad, but all that confetti adds up to something more pernicious… Interruptions undermine the quality of those chunks of leisure time by reminding you of all the activities that you could or should be doing.”
As Adam puts it:
“We take what could be meaningful moments of our lives and we shred them into increasingly tiny, useless pieces. Time confetti is an enemy of both energy and of excellence.”
In retirement, we can take our time in a way that we couldn’t when working full-time. We can achieve both mastery and mindfulness as we can give the time and space required.
Mattering is the third condition that truly optimises the experience. What you do needs to matter, to help others, to give something back, to have a purpose. (Sound familiar?!) In Adam’s case, it was to give something for his kids to look forward to each day at the height of lockdown and pandemic worry.
Finding purpose in retirement
When we first retire, we’ve got Things To Do – which usually equate to jobs around the house, holidays to take, people to see, hobbies to enjoy. That list can last you several years, but ultimately it will get shorter and lose purpose and meaning along the way.
For example, when you’re repainting the lounge for the third time in 10 years, that’s not really got a purpose beyond changing the colours a bit. Ditto the carpets, and there are only so many new sofas you need.
Just for the sake of it
Equally, if you’re playing a sport just to play it, it will become just another task. If you play it for the social, for the laughs, for the opportunity to be part of something beyond yourself, that has quite a different purpose. Your involvement matters. You don’t have to compete, but if you do, that adds further purpose.
A friend of mine was arm-twisted into helping with her first archery club ‘have a go’ day – which she actually adored. Helping people shoot their first arrow and actually hitting the target was a huge thrill. Even better was seeing those people join the beginners’ course, become one of the club regulars, and pass the love of the sport on to others in turn. She had made a difference, however small.
Idleness and languishing
Don’t confuse idleness with languishing. When you are idle, you’re actually giving your brain a rest. You’re switching off for a while, rather than just drifting aimlessly.
“Idleness has been shown to be a valuable form of leisure and can increase time affluence. The physical and mental benefits of disengaging the brain are far more valuable than the stress created by keeping the mind engaged at all times.”
Skiing and flow
People who can sit on a beach all week and do very little really have idleness nailed. It’s an art form in itself.
Personally, I love to combine flow and idleness on my favourite type of holiday – skiing. For me, skiing ticks the boxes for a peak flow experience, as Adam calls it.
You need mastery to stand up (!) and acquire sufficient skill to advance beyond being out-skied by knee-high children.
Skiing takes mindfulness and concentration. Just watch the Winter Olympics downhill to see how a slip of concentration results in sliding down on your backside (or worse). Mindfulness also means enjoying every moment, from that first breath of alpine air to the satisfaction of a perfectly carved turn.
Skiing matters because it’s quality family time for us all. We may be doing what we love, but we’re doing it together. You can’t check your phone if you’re skiing down a busy slope (unless you want to end up as either a menace to everyone else and/or headfirst in a snowdrift).
The idleness comes in after a day in the mountains, either relaxing in a bubbling hot tub or just watching the sun set with a beer. You don’t have to do anything unless you want to. Tomorrow is another day.
Why languishing matters
At the end of his talk, Adam poses this question to his audience:
“Where do you find mastery and mindfulness with the people who matter to you? I think we need to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. Not depressed doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. Not burned out doesn’t mean you’re fired up. When someone says, “How are you?,” it’s OK to say, “Honestly, I’m languishing.” …. And when you’re ready, you can start finding the flow that lights a path out of the void.”
Want your retirement to be more meaningful and less meh?
Contact me to discuss one to one retirement coaching, or sign up for my next Retire with Purpose introductory workshop.