Going Deep Makes Us Happier

graffiti tunnel

Decades of research stemming from Csikszentmihalyi’s original ESM (experience sampling method)  experiments validate that the act of going deep orders the consciousness in a way that makes life worthwhile.

— Cal Newport, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”

Some of you may recognize the name Csikszentmihalyi from my posts on the flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the Hungarian/American psychologist known as the father of flow. Flow is that delicious state we reach when we encounter the perfect mix of talent and challenge. In flow we lose track of time. Our inner critic quiets. Effort becomes effortless.

In his book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, author Cal Newport defines deep work as: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

Extra bonus: deep work makes us more productive too!

Newport claims the skill involved in doing deep work is becoming more and more rare. Perhaps introverts have an advantage here? Most people work in environments that promote distractions and interruptions, i.e. open office plans, constant email responding and sporadic meetings. All of these inhibit deep concentration.

Deep work and flow go hand in hand. Deep work is activities performed in distraction-free concentration. Flow is the state we reach while doing such activities.

Does what we concentrate on matter?

Science writer Winifred Gallagher says it matters what we think about during deep concentration. Five years of research results convinced Gallagher that where we place our attention is more important than our circumstances when it comes to happiness. Our brains construct a worldview based on what we pay attention to. Interestingly, Gallagher started her research after she was diagnosed with cancer. She chose not to focus on the cancer and instead lasered in on the small niceties of life, like a martini at the end of the day. By doing this she was able to enjoy life while she went through the trials of cancer treatment. Csikszentmihalyi says it is the deep concentration itself that keeps us satisfied, with little concern regarding the subject of our focus.

A bonus of deliberate attention is if we spend enough time doing deeply focused work we consider meaningful, there is little time to think about negative and unpleasant things that naturally invade our brain when we are not highly engaged.

Which makes us happier, work or leisure? 

If you answered leisure to the above question, you are not alone. Most people assume free, unstructured time is more pleasant than work time. The answer, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s experiments, is work. It turns out jobs are easier to enjoy than free time because they have built-in feedback, challenges and goals. All of which make it easier to concentrate and get lost in our subject, which stimulates the flow state. The more flow states we have throughout our week, the more satisfied we feel. How many times do you enter flow while working? Could you make your career more conducive to deep concentration?

Free-time can also make us happy but it may take more effort to shape it into something that we find enjoyable. The unstructured nature of leisure makes our brains work to form it into something we recognize as pleasant and leaves us open to distracting negative thoughts.

I conceptually understand the point about challenging work creating satisfaction but personally, I am often in my old time car woman drivingmost content state of mind while driving down the highway with music on. I believe I am a black belt focuser on sweet and inspiring subjects versus negative gnawing ones (at least during the day while the sun is up and the music is on — nighttime alone in bed, different story), which may explain the pleasure I get out of this unstructured activity.

An important note Newport makes in “Deep Work” is that to be most productive we need concentration time mixed with leisure time. It turns out we need to rest our concentration capabilities (they are finite like willpower) to make full use of them.

How do we do deep work when we are surrounded by people?

One of my favorite psychology gurus, Carl Jung, built a stone house in the woods of Bollingen, Switzerland away from the bustling life of his practice in Zurich. Frequently, Jung would retreat to Bollingen to write and think. He spent time walking in the woods and meditating. Jung went to Bollingen alone so he could work without interruptions. This all sounds like an introvert’s heaven and the perfect place to do deep work.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

I am not sure how often Jung went to Bollingen but he also spent a good portion of his time in Zurich taking care of patients and his family. He worked late nights. He participated in Zurich’s active social scene. He met frequently with others in coffee houses and spent a lot of time giving and attending lectures in the city. My point is it is possible to be bogged down with a bustling busy life and incorporate uninterrupted quiet time into our schedules. I know we don’t all have a home in the woods to retreat to but we can go to a library, hotel, park, friend’s cabin or corner of our basement to find uninterrupted work space. Cal Newport calls this the Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work scheduling.

While working on my book over the last three months, I’ve embraced this philosophy. I write during the day in my corner home office. As soon as the kids come home or it is time to meet with a companion or client, I switch gears and go into interaction mode. There are many days when my social life (both professional and personal) interject into my deep work time, but I just let it happen. No resistance. I plan for another day to make it up. Sometimes that means getting up very early or staying up very late. I focus on the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day and the subject matter that intrigues me so much. The fact that I am challenged by the task, have deadlines and receive feedback, also makes it easier to create opportunities to do this meaningful and flow generating work. Ok, I also know this crazy full schedule is only for a short time. The manuscript is due by the end of April! 🙂 Here’s a sneak peek at the title: The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World.


What deep work organizes your consciousness? Are you most satisfied at work or at leisure? 



Leave a Reply


  1. Michael
    April 3, 2017

    I read ‘Flow’ when it first came out. Fascinating, and I have always found that flow when I work. It is a beautiful, astounding thing, really, to be immersed, instantly, into another world. And there I am happy. Pretty much always.

    I’m also happy in the outer world, walking my pups as an example. To see the skies and trees, the plants, the buds now, the rains when it rains, the soaking grass we walk on. To see the infinite varieties of people.

    I’ve come to realize how happiness is simply a practice, like anything else. Every moment, we can practice choosing our thoughts. Choosing thoughts that lift us up. Make us feel better, lighter, more beautiful. Some times we fail at our choices! … and with time, the state of happiness is more and more ‘normal.’

    I love to create. I love to learn. I love to laugh. Leisure time? To do ‘nothing’? lol … then are the times to read, to write, to communicate with someone, share ideas, learn new things.

    Some of us seem to find that flow more easily than others. I don’t know why.

    For some reason, at the moment, another title comes to mind that I read around that same time that I read Flow — ‘Learned Optimism,’ by Seligman, I believe. Optimism is a practice, too, though some personality types seems to lean that way more naturally.

    Very interesting and provocative as always, Brenda. Thank you.


    • Brenda Knowles
      April 4, 2017

      Your idea of leisure time is just like mine.:) I’m going to look up “Learned Optimism”. I think I practice it already, whether it was an innate skill or something ‘learned’ I don’t know. My dad has always been quite optimistic, but my mom was not. Thank you as always for additional insight.

      • Michael
        April 4, 2017

        my dad was an optimist, too, very outgoing and gregarious, though he had a very private and quiet side to him, not often honored.

        mom? negative. just not optimistic about much of anything. never was. that generation had it tough, you know. you got married, and you had kids. and you stayed home. not easy for a woman.

        we heard through all of our lives from her, “I never should have had all you kids (7 of us), and I never should have married your father.” We heard this countless times. I understand where a lot of that came from. and i always knew she loved us. never a question there. she did wish she could have had a different life.

  2. cate moore
    March 26, 2017


    I have always appreciated the way you see the world – your lens fascinates me and I learn so much. Thank you for this piece…. I will certainly spend some time mulling it over. xo

    • Brenda Knowles
      March 26, 2017

      Thank you Cate! Nice to hear from you.:)

  3. David Kanigan
    March 24, 2017

    Brenda, great post. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on flow is on my short list of favorites and one that I recommend to many. Your post also reminded me of this Kafka passage:

    “One must — as in a swimming pool —

    dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again —

    laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things”

    ~ Franz Kafka, Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch (New Directions; January 26, 2012)

    • Brenda Knowles
      March 25, 2017

      I have read a lot of material on flow but strangely I have not read “Flow”. Your endorsement makes it even more of a must read. I love the Kafka quote, beautiful and truthful imagery. I might have to buy the Kafka book too. 🙂 Thank you David!

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