Last week, I once again echoed concerns about the pandemic’s “long-haul” damage to everyone’s mental health. It’s not the first time I’ve rung that bell.
As recently as October, I wrote about the nation’s leading pediatric groups calling the state of children’s mental health a crisis and a “national emergency.” In June, I reported on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Census Bureau study that found a disturbing increase in the numbers of adults with spiking anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Sounds like a full-blown mental health crisis to me.
And I’m not alone. Far from it. According to the findings of a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released Jan. 10, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe it to be true.
In a rare moment of an across-the-board agreement, the poll found that nearly 9 in 10 registered voters believe that the nation is in the midst of a mental health crisis. USA Today says the results reflect a survey of 1,000 registered voters taken by cellphone and landline from Dec. 27 to Dec. 30, 2021.
Jared Skillings is chief of professional practice for the American Psychological Association. He believes that the poll verifies that mental health is “no longer just a discussion among academics or in elite policy circles.” He goes on to say that it is hoped that “widespread” citizen concern will spark the needed political pressure to “go beyond the short-term fixes.”
“There are huge inequities in access to care,” says Shelli Avenevoli, deputy director for the National Institute of Mental Health. “That’s pretty much our predominant problem: the inability for all people to have equal access to high-quality, evidence-based care.”
According to the NIMH, “across all age groups, estimates suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment.”
In addition to the poll findings, USA Today states that, in 2021, “more people around the world Googled ‘how to maintain mental health’ than ever before.” Reports Google, “queries surged nearly 70% between April and May.” An independent survey released in August by the American Psychological Association says that many people are “feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day struggles.”
While not directly stated, mental health and self-care are somewhat mirrored in the majority of America’s top New Year’s resolutions for 2022. A national online survey from Fidelity Investments conducted in December, consisting of 3,031 adults 18 years of age and older, found eating more nutritiously, spending more time with loved ones and exercising more topped the list. In a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers conducted by RetailMeNot, the answers were similar. The top responses were exercising more, reducing stress, losing weight, spending more time with family and traveling.
Richard Huskey is an assistant professor of communication and cognitive science at University of California, Davis. In addition, he is the principle investigator in the Cognitive Communication Science Lab, where his studies include how motivation influences the attitudes people hold and the behaviors they adopt. “Our resolutions represent a plan for something new, or at least a little bit different,” he recently wrote in a post on the Conversation. “As you craft your 2022 resolutions, I hope that you will add one that is also on my list: feel more flow.”
Until very recently, I was not familiar with the term. As I wrote last week, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, “during the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow … that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place, and self, melts away.”
A better understanding of its importance for overall mental health and well-being, and steps we can take to improve it, could be a saving grace in the face of a pandemic that continues to grind away at our psyche.
Huskey studied flow for the last 10 years. He writes that serious research on the concept started in the 1970s by a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who described it as “a state of ‘optimal experience’ that each of us can incorporate into our everyday lives.” Csikszentmihalyi called it the “secret to happiness.” Adds Huskey, “we are completely absorbed in a highly rewarding activity — and not in our inner monologues — when we feel flow.”
“Researchers have gained a vast store of knowledge about what it is like to be in flow,” says Huskey. “When people feel flow, they are in a state of intense concentration. Their thoughts are focused on an experience rather than on themselves. They lose a sense of time and feel as if there is a merging of their actions and their awareness. That they have control over the situation. That the experience is not physically or mentally taxing.”
Early studies looked at swimmers, music composers, chess players, dancers, mountain climbers and other athletes — people obviously doing tasks they enjoyed. Researchers have come to learn that people can also find flow in more everyday experiences. “So long as that task’s challenge is high, and so are your skills, you should be able to achieve flow,” writes Huskey.
Games are obvious flow activities — and that includes the video variety. Csikszentmihalyi has described playing a video game as a “flow experience par excellence.” He also stresses that the quality of the time playing, not necessarily quantity, is what matters.
“A recent study also shows that flow helps people stay resilient in the face of adversity,” says Huskey. “Part of this is because flow can help refocus thoughts away from something stressful to something enjoyable. In fact, studies have shown that experiencing flow can help guard against depression and burnout.”
If you are thinking of adding “feeling more flow in your life” to your resolutions, start by harkening back to the words of Plato: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”