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The Engaged Life, after You Marry

As I mentioned yesterday, I would like to look at the latest model of human flourishing, PERMA, and what it means for how we can enjoy being married. According to Martin Seligman, wellbeing stems from five sources: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishment (PERMA).

Yesterday, we looked at how to get more Positive emotion into our lives when our spouse cannot or will not do things with us, give us that massage or hug we crave, or say the words we long to hear.

Today, I want to focus on Engagement. This marvelous bit of flourishing has another name. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi gave it the name Flow, that wonderful state of being where you are so intensely involved in something that you could not even say if you are happy or unhappy. When you are done, though, you know you enjoyed yourself, even in spite of any pain or danger involved.

Rock climbing, sailing, and white water rafting are great examples of flow-inducing activities. So are painting, sculpting, making music, and acting. Good sex leads to flow. So can cooking or dancing or solving a puzzle.

Nine things make an activity more likely to put us into flow:

  1. At every step, our next goal is clear
  2. Each action results in immediate feedback
  3. The task calls for a slight stretch, just a tiny bit more skill than we currently possess, but not a lot more
  4. We become aware of nothing beyond our current action
  5. We cannot notice distractions
  6. Failure, while possible, does not occupy our thoughts
  7. Self-consciousness slips away
  8. We easily lose track of time and find ourselves surprised when we stop how much has gone by
  9. Over time, we come to engage in the activity for its own sake, rather than what it will gain us

Our recent discussion of online games comes to mind here. Many people go into flow while playing them. To a spouse who wants to engage them, the total involvement, the time that slips away, the loss of self-consciousness, and the inability to notice distractions may all come across as rejection.

When you choose your own flow activities, you might want to be sensitive to this. Choose the time and place accordingly. And don't expect your life partner to understand that you are oblivious to your rock climbing or sculpting partner, too. Avoid engaging in your flow activities with someone that will set off jealousy.

If you have no flow-inducing hobbies, start looking. Pay attention to times when you find yourself emerging from flow. One that most people recognize is the end of a long-distance drive, when you cannot remember the landmarks along the way and wonder how you made it home like that. Pay attention to those little urges to master a new skill. Learning a skill can often put you into flow.

Still stuck? Check out your Signature Character Strengths through the VIA Strengths Survey at AuthenticHappiness.org. Using them in new ways tends to result in flow.

If you share a strength with your distant husband or wife, it might be a great choice. As you experience the benefits of frequent engagement, he or she may be tempted to join you.

If not, remember you can increase your engagement in sex, too. If your environment offers too many distractions to block out, work on removing them. If your schedule conflicts with losing track of time, change your schedule. Stretch just beyond your current skill level in pursuit of greater pleasure for yourself or your mate. Become more aware of short-term goals and not just your end goal. Sex is a great place for shared flow.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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