Happiness: Reflection on Novelty

25 Nov

OK! So, my professor was able to review my Reflection Paper (referenced in this morning’s blog post) more quickly than anticipated! And her comments validate my instict that the paper is worth sharing. Our task was to “intentionally engage in an activity that is new to you and describe this novel experience … using research from the readings to substantiate your experience.”

Before I share the paper, here are my professor’s comments:

This was a wonderful paper to read. Your self-awareness and humility were compelling, and I commend you for really extending yourself. It’s good to hear that this experience was so meaningful for you–due to, as well as being a result of, the numerous ways you listed!

I think your choice for the novel activity was nicely aligned with the goals you have expressed that are important to you. With more exposure to [your chosen acitivity], I predict you’ll experience even more time in Flow, though the time you did spend on this first time is quite incredible (as Flow is difficult to feel the first time around when trying out something new that requires multiple forms of learning)!

The way you integrated so much of the research and findings, from numerous weeks, served to deepen the understanding of your experience. Sounds like this (double entendre!) “cycle”is an all-around win for you!

Nice work.

Solid! Super!

Here’s the paper:

Intentional, Novel Activity Reflection
Cristin Zeisler
11/23/14

For the last ~6months I have been learning how to clip into and out of my mountain bike pedals (which are MUCH different from my much-beloved, and well-managed road bike pedals) and going on short local hill rides to practice “trail reading” and balance skills. Mountain bike (MTB) riding is a MUCH different skill than road cycling. It’s challenging for most people to learn/master and it’s even more challenging for me given my lingering cognitive, perception, and balance deficiencies.

Yesterday, I set aside 3.5 hours to engage in REAL mountain biking (up and down a real mountain — specifically, Mt. Wilson) for the first time ever, in the company of my road-cycling coach. In addition to this being my first “real” MTB outing, this outing also was novel insofar as Coach and I rarely spend time actually riding together (my training is generally conducted on an “assignment-and-report” email/telephone basis). Accordingly I was nervous about this outing for several reasons:

  • First, would I have the skills, bravery, and perseverance to actually complete the ride and do so safely?
  • Second, assuming I could physically master the challenge, could I remain an upbeat, cheerful, agreeable companion throughout our adventure?
  • Next, regardless of whether I succeeded or failed on those fronts, would I be able to adequately express my thanks to Coach for his patience and support?
  • Finally, would I take away a sense of satisfaction from the experience?

This outing challenged me more than I expected — not from a fitness perspective, but from the mental-processing standpoint. MTB riding is a very multi-modal activity. I am still not very adept at managing multiple lines of parallel reasoning/activity. My poor brain constantly felt like it was nearing full mental melt-down mode. The amount of mental energy I had to expend to “read,” navigate, and react to the trails (particularly through the rutted “rock gardens”) rendered me largely incapable of engaging in the witty/charming social banter that typifies a road-cycling outing. That was a bummer.

There were, however, a few blissful sections where I felt like I was really “in the zone” (i.e., experiencing Nakamura’s “flow”). These moments made me feel very grateful and happy and proud — both while experiencing them and perhaps even more, now, as I reflect upon them (i.e., benefits from Frederickson’s “duration neglect” and Denier’s “end effects” theories). I only regret that I could not summon the energy/wherewithal during these blissful moments to share my reflections with Coach as they transpired (although I’ve since conveyed the information, and my thanks, to him in my “after action report better late than never, I hope!).

The entire outing required the “intense and focused” concentration that is the first element of “flow” (Nakamura, 90). I also was keenly aware that I could (and indeed HAD TO) control my actions and “respond to whatever happens next” (Ibid.) This awareness, however, typically did not rise to the transcendent level. I was very aware of myself as a social actor, both in terms of bike handling and on the “meta” level where I was consciously apprising and manipulating my mental processing patterns, actively modifying how I interacted with the trail so that I could more optimally manage both my disabilities and my abilities.

While engaging in these meta-level analyses, I experienced the “temporal distortion” remarked upon by Nakamura, except, alas, time moved more slowly than normal while I was in this state. In the few, aforementioned, “in the zone” moments, however, I certainly enjoyed–although clearly I did not get to “savor” (Quoidbach, 369)–having time move more quickly than normal.

One section in particular—the longest rock garden—stands out for this reaction. It was a slow, scary, exhausting section as I labored up the mountain. It took SO much brain power to navigate. The thinking exhausted me far more than the pedaling. I was petrified about having to re-encounter this danger zone on the way back down (visions of being impaled by gravel harpoons haunted me). In fact, I was frightened about the whole down-hilling experience in general.

The long rock garden section was approximately at the half-way point on the downhill, so by the time I got to it, I’d already built up a fair amount of confidence in my bike handling skills. Going up, that section felt like it took 10+minutes. Going through it on the downhill, however, felt like it took less than 10 seconds and as I rode through it, it didn’t faze me at all. In fact, it felt so (relatively) “easy” that I wasn’t convinced that I’d actually even done it!

Only once I reached Coach at our re-group/rest point and he asked (with obvious concern) how I felt did I really understand that I’d made it — unscathed and happy. Yay, me!

At ride’s end, Coach asked me to rate our outing on a scale of 1-10. I demurred (because I had a huge headache caused by all the downhill jostling and I really couldn’t make sense of anything at that point), but promised I’d give him an answer today. Looking back on the experience now, I give it an 8.5 and I’m looking forward to kicking it up 0.5 each time that I go out there again over the next couple months.

It’ll be a 10 by New Year’s for sure.

To wrap up:

  • Did the activity challenge me? Yes, excessively and unexpectedly so.
  • Did it provide me with pleasure and/or meaning? A little bit of the former and a LOT of the latter.
  • Did I experience flow? At times, yes. And I expect that each time I return to this route I will increase the percentage of time spent in that state.
  • With regards to positive emotions — I’ve already amassed such a HUGE resiliency base from how I’ve intentionally pursued and structured my life over the past 3.5 years, that it’s difficult to assign any concrete “broaden and build” benefits to this particular activity (Frederickson, 1369). Certainly I enjoyed some amount of general positive accretion, but it may be statistically insignificant when measured against the massive reservoir of happiness/positivity that I’ve already built.

Finally, it always makes me deliriously happy/grateful whenever I go out for any sort of bike ride (road or MTB) and I do not have to visit a medical professional afterwards! PLUS whenever I get an opportunity to learn more about how my disabilities manifest themselves and can be managed within the larger world I feel simultaneously humbled and hopeful, which together drive my gratitude, authenticity, and perseverance. It’s like an endless cycle (pun intended?) of virtue.

* * * * *

Now, harkeing back to my “serious answer” post. Can you see how intentionally choosing to embrace the suck can help transform an experience that might otherwise be awful into something awesome?

No? Not yet?

OK, tomorrow I will share the aforementioned “After Action Report” that I sent to Coach. It details the underlying physical and mental activities that belied my Reflection Paper.

And if you take all four of this week’s posts together (Seroius Answer + Intro to Happiness + Reflection on Novelty + AAR), I think you’ll have a pretty solid foundation upon which to build more happiness in your own life.

Let me know if I’m wrong.

flow-game-screenshot-1

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