Some retirees seem happy and fulfilled. Others seem unhappy, struggling with depression or anxiety. Are those less fortunate doomed to remain so for the rest of their lives? Of course not! We have more power than we think over our mental state. It is possible to create moments of happiness when you know how to combine the necessary ingredients! What are they?

The elements of this response below, come from research carried out in particular by the American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This researcher was interested in a psychological phenomenon which he named flow experience. It is a state of enchantment, of well-being in which everything seems to flow easily. This state is like a state of happiness, a state that people seek.

Ingredient #1 : A good combination of challenge and skill

A happiness activity, as a rule, involves a challenge (i.e. a certain degree of difficulty) and requires skill. Here are some examples.

Marise is cooking a meal for her and a friend who will be visiting her this evening. She chose to make a new recipe. Marise is having a very pleasant time, even happy, while cooking the meal. Why? Because this activity, while being feasible, involves a challenge and requires skills: gathering the ingredients, putting the right quantities, in the right order, respecting the cooking time, seasoning well, adding a personal touch, etc. Cooking is an art! The activity is therefore a challenge, and Marise has the skills to meet it.

If the recipe had been too simple, Marise would have found the preparation of the meal not very stimulating, borderline boring. If the recipe had shown an excessive degree of difficulty, she would have experienced unpleasantness, even stress, during the task. In short, a happiness activity offers a good balance between challenge and ability to achieve it. So beware of ease, synonymous with insufficient challenge.

Ingredient #2 : Pay attention to the levels of concentration!

As a general rule, a happiness activity mobilizes all of our concentration. Examples?

Jean-Pierre loves to photograph birds in the forest. When he engages in this activity, he is completely immersed in this activity which requires the use of his fingers and a sense of aesthetics.

Carole, passionate about painting, is painting a canvas. She’s completely absorbed in what she’s doing.

Meanwhile, her partner Raynald is writing a little book on the history of his hometown. He is fully immersed in his activity.

The concentration of these people is mobilized, because they use skills in order to perform a task with a sufficient degree of difficulty, therefore a challenge.

Psychologist’s tip: to better focus on what you are doing, cut off distraction sources such as the phone ringing, your email, notifications, etc.

Ingredient #3 : Clear objective and feedback

A happiness activity normally presents a clear objective. Here are some examples: Marise wants to cook a tasty meal. Carole wants to reproduce a painting as faithfully as possible. Raynald wants to write an easy-to-read and interesting book.

In addition, the happiness activity usually provides continuous feedback. In the case of Raynald, who is busy writing a book, he gradually sees whether he is approaching his objective or not: “This paragraph lacks clarity; I have to improve it”, “The introduction to this chapter seems really catchy to me; I like it!”, “A link is missing between these two paragraphs”.

Clarity and feedback: two words to remember!

Ingredient #4 : Goodbye distraction!

If the activity is challenging, requires skill and gets our full attention, then there will be no room for distraction! Here are some examples.

Roland learns new dance steps in his salsa class. He is very focused while trying to master the new steps. He is so busy learning that there is no more room in his mind to think about hassles, like his recent argument with his son.

When Suzanne works in her vegetable garden, she thinks of nothing more than what she does. Her next mammogram, which is a cause for concern, does not occupy her thoughts during her gardening.

In short, during a happiness activity, there is no more space in our psyche for our problems, big or small. Only the task occupies our mind. For some people, it’s almost like therapy!

Ingredient #5 : The consciousness of the “I” disappears

If the happiness activity mobilizes our attention enough, there is no room in our minds for concerns about ourselves.

An example: when Jacqueline works in her flowerbed, she is so absorbed in her activity that she does not care what she looks like. She doesn’t think about the sweat on her face while working or her hands full of dirt. Also, she sometimes does not feel hungry and forgets to go to eat, she is so absorbed in her gardening. In other words, she no longer thinks of her “I”. She is one with her leisure activity.

Ingredient #6 : The notion of time flying by

A happiness activity makes us lose not only our awareness of ourselves, but also the notion of time! Here are two examples.

Nicole, 74, is a grandmother of two grandchildren. When she skates or plays cards with them, she forgets the passing of time. An hour spent playing with her two little treasures seems to last at most 10 minutes!

Louis, a retired French teacher, corrects his daughter’s job search letters. When he tackles a text to improve it, Louis does not see the time passing!

Activities that make us lose track of time benefit from being included in our agenda, since they often lead to a state of well-being.

In conclusion

States similar to that of happiness are accessible to all. To live in a state of happiness and enchantment, we gain by undertaking an activity which:

1) involves a challenge and calls upon the appropriate skills;
2) requires concentration;
3) has a clear objective and provides continuous feedback;
4) removes all distractions;
5) makes us lose consciousness of ourselves;
6) makes us lose track of time.

If you feel like you are having few experiences of happiness, I suggest you try new activities. It could be learning a language, taking piano or guitar lessons, joining a choir, creating a photo album, etc. In short, challenge yourself!

Would you be able to name three of your happiness activities? Please let us know below!


Stéphane Migneault
Psychologist, author and speaker