February 10, 2014

“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge”.   Those words were spoken by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly.

Csikszentmihalyi is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic.  He is the author of many books and over 120 articles or book chapters.  Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, described Csikszentmihalyi as the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology.  Csikszentmihalyi once said:  “Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished.  Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.”  His works are influential and are widely cited.   Csikszentmihalyi received his B.A. in 1960 and his PhD in 1965, both from the University of Chicago.

In his seminal work, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.  The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

Personally, I really don’t think this is a theory but an actual fact.  Have you ever been so absorbed in a project or endeavor you lost track of time?   I think we all have.  I can remember one incident where I continued to work long after “the bell rang”.  Friday evening, eight o’clock and I was still working.  My wife called me to ask “are you coming home tonight”?  It was a difficult project needing complete concentration on my part and I simply lost track of time.  Dr. Csikszentmihalyi indicates this “zoned-out” feeling is one means to survival and can have a great influence on improving our quality of life.  It is one way to “turn lemons into lemonade”.   According to psychologists dealing with cognitive issues, there is a wide array of responses to adversity, but the one that can be most debilitating is catastrophizing.   People catastrophize when they turn everyday inconveniences into major setbacks and those setbacks into disasters.  Catastrophizing often involves destructive rumination over bad events.  These ruminations represent the most damaging connections you can make.  Catastrophizing is a definite, remarkable barrier to flow.  There is no “zone” if you are in a panic or bent double with worry or doubt.

One extraordinary book discussing adversity is “Adversity Quotient” by Dr. Paul G. Stoltz.  I can definitely recommend this book to you.  It’s a marvelous “read” where questions are asked and results given to determine your AQ.  In your brain, Catastrophizing is like any other response to adversity.  You are merely following a subconscious neurological groove, a pathway made more efficient and discernible from repeated use.  To halt this pattern, you must interrupt or stop it dead in its path.  You may create the neurological interrupt by using any of the following eight (8) techniques.


  • Slam you palm on a very hard surface, shout “stop”.  This sounds a little sophomoric but it has been proven to work.  The very act trains your system to interrupt the “gloom and doom” scenario and get back to reality.
  • Focus intently on an unrelated object.  A bit quieter and less dramatic, thus better in public situations.
  • Place a rubber band on your wrist and snap out of it.  This is a very physical reaction producing a very slight pain but that just might snap you back into reality.
  • Distract yourself with an unrelated activity.
  • Alter your state with exercise.  Of course, this is somewhat impractical in some (maybe most) situations.  You can’t drop and start doing pushups when your mind wonders to the adversity at hand.


Reframers are devices to put the adversity into perspective.  Your focus becomes intense and inward.

  • Refocus on your purpose. “Why am I doing this?” This reminds you of the reason you were originally involved.  It can provide the “big picture” and allows you to focus.  Why did you choose this job, this project, this company, this location, etc.
  • Get small.  Getting small involves consciously putting yourself in a situation where you are dwarfed by what surrounds you.
  • Help someone else.  Without a doubt, one of the most powerful tools to manage adversity is putting your problems into perspective by helping someone else with bigger problems than your own.

I read a fascinating article in “Psychology Today “regarding personality types that call every negative event a catastrophe.  To my great surprise, these are for the most partType “A” personalities.  The movers, the shakers, people needing to get on with it.  Those of us who make a mountain out of a molehill.  I suppose I should have expected this.  At any rate, there are methods to lessen the effects regarding the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

I certainly hope you enjoyed this post.  It’s different than what I normally write about but fascinating at any rate.


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