May 21, 2022

With March 20th marking the International Day of Happiness, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 20121, it’s time to take a step back and put some thought into what makes us happy. But what is happiness? As Howard Mumford Jones, a renowned American intellectual historian, literary critic, poet, and professor at Harvard University, once said, “Happiness… belongs to that category of words, the meaning of which everybody knows, but the definition of which nobody can give.”2 Needless to say, happiness can be tricky to define, let alone strive for!

At IEA, we are committed to the whole child, inspiring students to grow and find balance among all five aspects of self: intellectual, social, spiritual, physical, and emotional. We understand that emotional wellbeing is just as important as intellectual growth, and that positive emotions actually facilitate openness and drive curiosity and exploration. In fact, studies3 find that emotions significantly influence our learning strategies, motivation, cognitive resources, and academic achievement.


Research has documented that happiness is best obtained through “flow” activities that require active physical and psychic investment.4 With that being said, flow is defined as a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.5. In fact, there are six key factors that encompass the experience of flow6:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

So, how can we “get into the zone”?!


 Around the world, the most frequently mentioned enjoyable activity is reading5. What can be more absolutely absorbing than ‘losing yourself’ in a good book?! Whether it be fantasy or non-fiction, reading is a great way to become completely involved in an activity, leading to feelings of immersive interest and maybe even a different experience of time itself. Getting wrapped up in an engrossing read allows for the opportunity to escape your own sense of self-consciousness, even if just momentarily.


 Followed closely behind reading as being reported as the most enjoyable activity is being with other people5. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into this particular activity, there are still ways to socialize with other people- whether that be engaging in shared virtual gaming, meeting via video-call hangouts, or even writing letters back and forth! Engaging with others in various ways allows us to focus our concentration on the present moment- a key factor in the experience of flow6.


 Another great way to reach a state of flow is to create art, which allows for a sense of control as well as a merging of action and awareness. Any act of creating and crafting that brings you into the present moment will do- painting, playing music, sculpting, sewing, or even doodling, to name a few. As Pablo Picasso once said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”


Physical activity is an exceptional way to achieve a state of flow, specifically in its ability to provide opportunities to match one’s skill level to a challenging or goal. Think of a physical activity, like swimming, running, or yoga- we feel most accomplished and competent, allowing for experiences of confidence and a sense of control, when the goal of the activity is well matched to our ability. A beginner runner who participates in a 5K marathon would most likely not reach a state of flow, but an advanced runner could surely “get into the zone”. Not excluding one’s ability to expand one’s skill set, make sure to get your body moving in challenging ways, but not too challenging!

With all of this being said, developing tangible techniques to reach states of flow offer exciting opportunities to work towards finding balance among all five aspects of self and reaching our full potentials. Given the multitude of ways to achieve flow, that elusive emotion we call happiness is surely within our reach!


  1. International Day of Happinessdayofhappiness.net
  2. Freedman, J. (1978). Happy People: What Happiness Is, Who Has It, and Why. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  3. Berry, Natalie (2013, February 17) Are Happy Students Successful Students? https://natberryblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/are-happy-students-successful-students/
  4. Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The Concept of Flow. In C. Snyder, & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 89-105). Oxford University Press.
  5. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row.
  6. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Washington: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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