"I later constructed this kind of model or theory" for such behavior, Csikszentmihalyi says. "Since nobody knew what autotelic meant, I called it flow." Research over the years has shown that people totally engaged in pursuits can trigger healthful changes in their brain chemistry and respiratory patterns.
Flow is easily associated with creativity and the image of a musician or artist "lost" in near-rapturous pursuit of their craft. And Csikszentmihalyi says in some respects, society has come to value and support the arts and sporting pursuits precisely because of their flow benefits. It's why we like to do them in the first place. "The real challenge," he says, "is to take something that you have to do that has purpose and meaning" and figure out how to induce a state of flow while doing it. "It's possible to experience your job and your family life as flow, and that to me is more important than that we provide opportunities for flow in art and sports."
Flow may appear a lofty goal of achieving total absorption in a task or activity. If so, think of various stages of engagement as forming a path toward flow that also provide satisfaction and happiness. To derive these benefits, researchers have found, the tasks involved must be sufficiently hard to really challenge us. It's that challenge that draws us in and it's overcoming that challenge that produces health and happiness. These conditions have been given a name as well: "just manageable difficulty." Like Goldilocks' porridge preference, our challenges have to be "just right" for us to thrive.
The benefits of learning and engagement are particularly important in promoting healthy aging. "Your mind is really like a muscle, and using it is a key" to lifelong mental health, Berkman says. There has been a surge in attention to mental exercise as a way of preventing Alzheimer's disease, for example. While the link between such efforts and disease prevention has not been definitively established, most scientists believe there is a beneficial relationship between lifelong learning and staying socially active with mental well-being and happiness later in life. Older people who become isolated can lose the activities that trigger their minds to engage in enjoyable and stimulating activities.
Jacquelyn James is the director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work and has been overseeing an ongoing study of the benefits that older people derive from continued work. Across a span of activities—paid work, caregiving, volunteering, and education—the levels of engagement people experienced were strongly related to their enjoyment and benefits from the activity. Just being involved in an activity does not produce the benefits of engagement. And engagement needs to be connected with a sense of purpose and achievement to produce happiness.
"As we get older, it is more important to find things to do that light up our lives," James says. Our minds are central to this effort, and thrive when we are finding new things for them to do. Whether it's acquiring a new skill or language (very high on the list of mental acuity benefits), joining a new group and meeting new people, or finding ways to continue using existing skills, successful aging and longevity are built upon patterns of lifelong learning.