Last week I picked up a part-time job at a dress shop in downtown Annapolis. Some would say that this gig makes absolutely no sense. It doesn’t advance my career as a mental health writer and consultant. I have no retail experience whatsoever. My compensation as a sales associate hardly matches what I was making as a government contractor or an editor. And yet, every time I walk into the boutique, I feel happy and alive.
In the last six months, I have learned to pay attention to the people, places, and things that generate joy, to deviate from my formulated plan, and to take a risk on things that make people furrow their brow and say “Huh?” Swimming across the Chesapeake Bay fits into this category, as does hiking 500 miles through Spain, which I plan to do in May. They require swapping my measured strategies with random hunches — aiming to think a little less and live a little more.
From Frugal to Fashion
My new fashion frenzy is representative of a deeper transformation.
For the first 46 years of my life, I owned maybe six outfits. The word frugal doesn’t begin to describe my efforts at saving pennies or my self-imposed restrictions on purchases of any kind. In grade school, I rode my bike 10 miles across town to score a used sweater at a yard sale for 25 cents, covering its massive hole with a turtle neck of the same shade. In college, my friends mocked my “uniform,” a Notre Dame sweatshirt and hot-pink sweatpants. In my first year as a working adult, I wore all my mom’s old clothes, even her underwear. I gladly inherited her wardrobe after she quit smoking and gained 50 pounds. I never stepped foot in a boutique because I felt too guilty buying something new.
That changed one April day two years ago when I walked into The White House Black Market in Lido Key, Florida looking for a dress to wear to an important work event where I would be sitting among notable psychiatrists and experts in the mental health field. The two women helping me hung a chestnut sheath dress with a smart pink, black, and white pattern in my dressing room. Its clean lines were sophisticated with just the right touch of sass. Once I tried on the dress with the proper accessories–a cropped black sweater, a peach gemstone necklace, and matching gold earrings–I stood in front of the mirror like the made-over Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”
Who is this woman? I wondered. For the very first time in my life, I felt like I belonged in the league of high-powered professionals.
A fashionista was born that day. I realized that the right pair of shoes and choker necklace have similar powers to cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness in improving my mood and boosting my confidence. With velvet camisoles, knee-high boots, and wrap dresses, I began applying color and style to my life. When matching suede jackets with silk scarfs and gemstone earrings, I achieved a state of flow.
Achieving a state of flow
Defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a state of single-mindedness that harnesses all emotions into one action and produces a kind of rapture. It’s a moment of nothingness—when all senses are so focused on an activity that a person isn’t able to feel anything in his environment. This suspension of feeling can be experienced as bliss. You become oblivious to the world around you and lose track of time.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, the optimal condition for flow to happen is when the challenge level of a task is high, met by the high skills of the person accomplishing the task. The state of “arousal” borders flow in that a person feels overly challenged, but doesn’t have enough skill to push her into flow. In a state of “control,” a person feels too comfortable for his skill level. By adding more challenge, he goes into flow.
A friend of mine achieves flow by designing colorful jewelry and felted soaps. Another escapes her world by knitting. Both consider their crafts as strategies to maintain sanity, as mental vacations from worry and ruminations. These fleeting moments of focus and single-mindedness foster emotional resiliency and good mental health. Research indicates that people who experience flow on a regular basis have lower levels of depression and anxiety.
I’m not expecting bliss from my new job. They call it work for a reason. However, spending a few hours in my happy place each week might cultivate joy and make me feel alive. Engaging in conversations with strangers may provide a nice balance to the solitude of my writing. Maybe using the cash register will even activate dormant brain cells and pull me out of my head a bit.
American actor and singer Jonathan Groff once said, “Just follow your joy. Always. I think that if you do that, life will take you on the course that it’s meant to take you.” Sometimes it’s good to adhere to a plotted blueprint, to take the obvious path. Other times it’s better to drop your plans, do something totally random, and chase joy.