Energy Cycles, Flow, and Emotional Positivity
Managing your energy cycles is crucial to enhancing happiness
Posted Jun 21, 2011
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One of the most important rhythmic cycles-one that is experienced by all living beings, including trees, ducks, and viruses-is that of energy flux. Energy flux refers to the ebb and flow of energy within us. Consider this: almost everything that we (and all other living organisms) do either enhances our energy levels or diminishes them. Consuming food and sleeping, for example, enhance our energy levels, whereas exploring the environment ("playing") or pursuit of goals ("working") diminishes them.
Why is it important to understand the rhythmic cycle of energy within us?
Imagine that you have had a very good night's sleep, and that, before you went to sleep, you had a hearty and nourishing meal. When you wake up, you are likely to have high levels of both mental and physical energy. In such a state, you will want to spend the "excessive" levels of energy through activity. Usually, the activity in which most adults expend energy is called work. If our work is enjoyable (that is, work is playful and fun), we experience joy and excitement-the positive emotional states induced by energy expenditure.
Lower-order animals expend excess energy through frolicking (as deer or calves do) or by engaging in mock fights and horseplay (as felines do). Little children-who haven't yet been socialized to consider work as obligation-expend excess energy by learning about their environment (including people), and they have great fun doing so.
If expending excess energy induces the "high" positive emotions of joy and excitement, activities that help replenish energy levels induce the "low" positive emotions of calmness and peace. Imagine that, after spending a good part of your day completely absorbed in interesting and meaningful mental work, you had a vigorous physical workout. These activities would, naturally, put you in a state of low physical and mental energy. The activities that help replenish your physical energy levels (e.g., a hearty meal) and those that replenish your mental energy levels (e.g., a good night's sleep) will induce the states of calmness and peace in you.
Recognizing the linkages between energy flux and emotional states is useful for many reasons.
First, it helps gain a better understanding of how to sustain emotional positivity or happiness. The first thing to recognize in this regard is that it is impossible to constantly be in a high positive state, that is, it is impossible to be constantly joyous or excited. However, it is possible to alternate between high positives states and low ones. That is, if one manages to find ways of replenishing and expending energy as and when one needs to, one can oscillate between states of joy/excitement and calmness/peace without ever venturing into the negative territory. Of course, for this to happen, circumstances would need to cooperate; specifically, you would have to be lucky enough to find energy replenishing sources (food, place to sleep, etc.) and depleting ones (meaningful activities, both physical and mental) precisely when your energy levels are low and high, respectively. However, even if circumstances do not fully cooperate, the mere knowledge that happiness is significantly tied to energy flux will help you better manage your activities and time so as to make it easier for you to optimize your energy cycles. For example, you would recognize the importance of not sacrificing on sleep, since it is a crucial (and indispensable) means by which you get to restore your energy levels. Likewise, you would recognize that constant replenishing of energy (e.g., eating and sleeping without any physical or mental activity) cannot produce lasting happiness; indeed, a slothful life is a depressing one.
Second, it helps you understand that you could be low on mental energy, but high on physical energy and vice versa, and that this means that you would need to be careful not to confuse the two. In particular, it is important to understand that, when you are low on mental energy (e.g., after a full day's work), you are likely to confuse the low mental energy levels with low physical energy levels and therefore, feel reluctant to engage in the sort of activities that would in fact bring you happiness: working out at a gym, or playing a good game of tennis. Likewise, when you are on vacation and have expended physical but not mental energy, your happiness would depend on finding opportunities to expend excessive mental energy (e.g., by learning a new language or by learning more about the history and culture of the place you are visiting).
Finally, understanding the linkage between energy flux and emotions helps you understand that human beings-and, indeed, all living organisms-are not designed to "take the path of least resistance." In other words, we are not, by nature, lazy sloths who are programmed to minimize energy expenditure. The reason most of us dislike expending energy is because we dislike the ways in which we expend energy, that is, we dislike what we do for a living. We dislike our work. This is unfortunate because the process of energy expenditure should, by nature, induce joy. Those of us who are lucky enough to have found our calling-and thus get to expend energy in meaningful ways-experience joy on a more regular basis, as Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi (author of Flow) argues. Even those who haven't found their calling can extract enjoyment from the process of expending energy if they can fool themselves into believing that what they are doing is meaningful, as I discussed in a recent post, The Need to be Busy). But in the ultimate analysis, there is no substitute for discovering our true passion and having the discipline to manage our energy levels to pursue it.
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