This time next week I will be in Delhi. That feels very big. I am off travelling through the North of India with a couple of friends (on my gap month!). Backpacks, hostels, sleeper trains and an entirely different culture, with in some places poverty in the extreme – that could be challenging. I think it is going to be a massive shock to the system.
Whilst I am really excited – seeing a completely new place, having new experiences and leaving life in London behind for a while – I am also pretty nervous. I am very comfortable at the moment. I have my friends, my job, my family and a constant familiarity with my surroundings.
So India will be a change…
Why am I going? Well, ever since I had a period struggling with my mental health a couple of years ago, I have known that I wanted to go on a big trip – somewhere where I can escape the stress and anxiety of the every day and immerse myself in something different. Whilst my mental health has improved significantly since then, I feel it is still something that will hugely benefit me and actually put things into perspective. It is all about getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing something new. So, when my friend Gabbie mentioned she was taking this trip, I decided to join her.
But how do new experiences and getting out of our comfort zones impact our minds?
When it comes to individual experiences and activities pyschologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has a lot to say about this. He was the first to articulate the concept of flow, (see his TED Talk). Csikszentmihalyi explains how the level of difficulty and level of our skill in an activity affect how our brain functions. Flow is achieved when you are using a high level of skill and are highly challenged. It is a state in which you are so focused that you gain a sense of serenity and timelessness and the activity becomes worth doing for its own sake.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the most positive place to be, but he also explains that the states of arousal and control can move quite easily into flow. Arousal – when an activity is highly challenging but your skill is not quite as high – is where most people learn because they are being pushed beyond their comfort zone. Control is where you have good skills and yet are not being challenged enough. If you want to enter flow from control, the challenge must be increased.
So stepping outside our comfort zone is a real way to develop skills and broaden our experiences.
Tal Ben-Shahar writes, in his book Happier:
‘the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’
Now I’m not saying that I expect to be in a state of flow throughout my trip, nor do I think that I will be particularly different when I’m back. But I do expect that I will be challenged and that I will step outside my comfort zone. Maybe not in the typical sense of a brain-challenging activity like a puzzle or the Times crossword (things I often think of in relation to flow), but in a way that challenges me emotionally, socially and physically and opens up my mind…. hopefully in a positive way!
So goodbye for now Hubbers… I’m sure I will be writing to you soon – hopefully from somewhere between the Taj Mahal and the Himilayas!
By Ilana Mann