There are countless ways to go through life, but is there one way that leads to a more fulfilling existance than another? Many studies have been done on what it means to truly live. And when I say live, it’s not just the automatic biological process, but to live in the sense of a poet. To live in fullness, without the waste of time and potential, expressing one’s uniqueness, and interacting intimately with all the complexities of our surroundings. When all our days are inevitably over and we look back on our life, will we say we were happy?

A psychologist from the University of Chicago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has spent his career studying happiness and creativity, and is best known for his notion of flow. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Csikszentmihalyi has found that it is consistent flow moments or experiences that ultimately leads toexcellence in life. It is the number and frequency for which one is lost in the joy of the experience that far outweighs wealth, health, or fame that leads to happiness.

Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. When you are in flow, you are completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts or irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears and you feel becomes worth doing for its own sake.

Take a challenging clinical scenario where a patient is going to lose an anterior tooth and have an immediate implant placed and provisionalized. In the act of the surgical procedure itself, the implant surgeon is focused on the atraumatic extraction, being careful not to damage the soft tissue architecture, the removal of the tooth and any granulation tissue. The placement of the implant in the ideal position and torqued to specifications. If the surgeon takes time to evaluate his or her feelings or to feel happy, they could make a mistake. Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened, and then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of that experience. Then, in retrospect, we are happy.

When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on our inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.

Our profession of dentistry never lacks clinical challenges and there are always new skills to develop. We have a boundless opportunity to experience flow in our day-to-day lives. The difficulty is establishing a practice model that allows you the freedom from time and money to become fully engulfed in your clinical experiences. ■