Brains develop by the ways they are used, and repeated experiences create distinct circuits. How then do we exercise our brains and build healthy pathways? We all know the benefits of hard work: hard work makes us stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. We would all love our brains to work hard so we could reap these benefits. So, how do we do that?
One way to focus the brain is by entering the mental state of Flow: a psychological state that involves high focus, high engagement, high drive, and low threat. Centering on one task and becoming fully immersed in an experience that allows us to lose ourselves in it feels good and is also hard work. Flow is the brain state we most often experience in hobbies, sports, music, all typically out-of-school pursuits. Researcher Reed Larson touts the benefits of the passionate pursuit of leisure activities or past times.
Years ago, I had a student rush in to his appointment, half an hour late, and breathlessly tell me about having spent his entire morning trying to build a table. (I really have no idea why!) His eyes ablaze, he enumerated the challenges, frustrations, and reasons for his confidence that he was going to make it work! His brain was awash in dopamine, the motivational brain chemical that eminent researcher Robert Sapolsky describes as “more about the wanting than the getting.” As dopamine drives us on, our work feels good. As we experience the reward of the work, flow is engaged and inspires us to work hard. And, over time, the flow state sculpts the brain so that we want to return to that state.
So, for all the things you want for and from yourself, know that you can sculpt your brain’s relationship to hard work. Generally, flow happens when you work hard at something you care about. For some students, this will be researching the Crimean War for other it will be perfecting their jazz bass scales. And, here’s the nifty thing: by fully engaging in those activities, you may generate an abundance of dopamine that can motivate you to do other things, even ones you have deemed unpleasant. This is one reason why kids with less time will be more on top of their schoolwork and more organized during a sports season, a big debate tournament, or the school musical. Their brain chemistry is improved by the flow of what they love.
To craft a brain that embraces hard work, look for activities and opportunities to experience flow. It could produce lasting dividends.