Warning: Vegging Out Can Be Very Stressful

Mark Sagor


Every morning I wake up and, after having a cup of coffee and reading The Boston Globe, I go to work on the Sudoku puzzle. Like millions of other people I look forward to testing myself against the day’s 9×9 grid. We puzzle people (let’s not forget the crossword folks) happily engage with this task even though we are never paid, praised or otherwise compensated. We do it for the sheer pleasure of the problem solving activity. Our brains love a good workout and for those moments when we are caught up in the pleasures of problem-solving we are not worried about our jobs or our kids or the state of the economy. In those moments, where we find ourselves without a trace of self-consciousness, we are experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”.

Csikszentmihalyi  is a brilliant psychologist who has made a career out of studying this fascinating phenomenon. His research on “Flow” is must reading for anyone interested in understanding happiness or understanding what motivates us at work. Some of his discoveries are counter-intuitive. For example his studies demonstrate that most of us are happier at moments of engagement at work than we are in many of our leisure activities (particularly watching television).

When we are engaged in our work, when we are writing code if we are a software engineer or erecting a wall if we are a builder, we experience this pleasurable sensation of “Flow” that comes from being completely focused on a task . Contrast this with the experience of watching formulaic and mediocre TV. We are watching and paying attention but the experience is not interesting or demanding enough to fully occupy our formidable cognitive capabilities. The problem is that our surplus cognitive capacity wants “something” to do while we are vegging out and, it so happens, the default setting on this “something” is worry.

 In other words, when we don’t structure our mental activity (either through work or more engaging forms of leisure) our minds tend to revert automatically to taking an inventory of all our current and anticipated problems. This inventory can be exhausting and depressing and is particularly insidious because the process is invisible and sub-vocal so we hardly notice that it’s going on. So the next time you sit down to watch TV and you notice yourself more absorbed by your problems than by the program, turn off the show and go find some flow.