Dumped by adult kids? Get into the Zone
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Yesterday, as I returned to my car, I noticed a woman emerging from one of the shops with a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and remembered—Valentine’s Day! I had contemplated the holiday weeks ago while thinking of what to write about it for this site. But I had become so engrossed in what I found that I forgot the day altogether. Immersed in my research, I had entered a state of “flow.”
The wonderful experience of being so caught up in the moment that you’re oblivious to time or pain has been studied extensively. The benefits are clear for increased learning, enhanced creativity, and joy.
As a writer, I’m no stranger to the state of flow—and my guess is that many of you have experienced it too. In 1975, researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, first coined the term “flow,” which has since been studied extensively. The flow state is most often associated with meaningful work, predicts higher performance, productivity and, in business settings, financial gains. But being in the zone, which is another way to describe this state, is also achieved during hobbies and other pursuits. Finding activities that provide meaning—and getting engrossed in them—is one key to a purposeful life.
But . . .
Sometimes I hear parents lament their advancing age, health woes, and lack of connection, all made worse by estrangement. I can certainly empathize. It’s hard to accept and deal with life’s challenges. And some of us have more to deal with than others do. I also know that, no matter our circumstances, purposefully focusing our energy on meaningful pursuits can transport us toward peace.
Midge, a mother of estranged adult children who is in her mid-80s, has multiple auto-immune conditions that limit her life. When she found herself all alone and suffering, she did her share of crying. Then she took up an old hobby she loves: watercolor painting.
With simple brushstrokes and vibrant colors, Midge enhances cut and folded card stock she then inscribes with positive messages, some scriptural. Midge sends these in bulk to helping organizations where the cards raise the spirits of individuals they’re distributed to. “I can get lost in that work,” says Midge. “It has helped me escape the pain … both physical and emotional.”
Midge’s work is attached to homelessness, which is sometimes connected to addiction or domestic violence. All of these have touched Midge’s life, so her form of flow brings deep personal meaning that connects to a larger pursuit. But not every entry point to flow must join with a social cause.
One widow, Sally, has made it her mission to clear out her home. Sally’s husband began “collecting,” after their daughter left the family. Fourteen years post-estrangement, he died and left Sally with mountains to clear. “There are a few pearls among the trash heaps,” she says of the dusty, sometimes moldy collectibles that range from magazines, to record albums, to miniature statues, and art. Sally, who has arthritis and circulation problems, is taking it slow, organizing a clearing process that increases her own safety and ease of movement: The entry hall’s floor, then the table, and then on to the shelf. The path to the dining table, the chairs and tabletop, and beyond. . . .
“It’s a job,” says Sally, “but I can get lost in looking at each item, and releasing it to donate, offer to my son, trash, or sell.” Sally remembers the mess her father-in-law left behind when he died, and that memory motivates her progress. “I wouldn’t wish that job on anyone,” she says. Her son lives far away but he’d be the one tasked to clear the house if she doesn’t. Working on making her current living situation safer and more enjoyable, plus acting for her son’s future ease, brings motivating meaning that drives Sally’s daily forays into flow.
A father, Thomas, who was dumped by adult kids, still lives in the home where he raised them. He says he’s getting “lost in a good way” in fixing up his home. “I’ve got some life left in me,” he says. “So why live with leaky toilets, creaky cupboards, and the uneven back steps that have bugged me for so long?” He hires out some of the work but enjoys the planning too. “I can get lost in home design photographs, imagining what tile flooring will best transition from one room to the next.” Thomas has been an outdoorsman most of his life. “But I have to protect my skin now in the Florida sun.” Thomas has had several skin cancers removed. He added gazebos and other shade structures all around his front and back yards. “Even planning that stuff got me in the zone,” he says.
Is there a bigger sense of meaning to Thomas’s pursuits? “To live,” he says. “To arrange things for my own satisfaction. To make my home a place I really love to be.”
Sensible Thomas remembers what it was like when the kids were young, and his wife left them all. “I raised them alone and did a good job of it. Now they’re all in touch with her again but I refuse to let them steal my joy. This is my life.” With a chuckle, Thomas adds, “Maybe when my house is done, I’ll have a beautiful place for a beautiful second wife after all these years.”
My old friend
I’m an old friend to the flow state—and also know its downsides. When writing Done With The Crying, I was so in the zone that I’d forget all sense of time and space. At some point, after hours of work, I’d wake up from a sort of spell and realize I’d been fixed in the same position for hours. That inactivity took a toll on my body, but the work was so meaningful, and that meaning brought me joy (as did the state of flow itself). This downside experience is why I invested in a standing desk, which is where I write most of the site articles and create presentations and other work. I still get into the zone doing this work to help parents dumped by adult kids, which I still find meaningful, and consider my life’s work.
As time has marched forward, I’ve experienced limitations that have changed my ability to get into a variety of activities that take me to that state of flow. A few years ago, I realized that some elements of gardening hurt more than they used to. I’m not alone there—which is why there’s a hot market for ready-made raised beds, knee pads, padded shovel handles, and even gardening chairs.
Changes to our abilities don’t always require a total loss. We use reading glasses as our vision’s flexibility changes with age. A colorful folding cane can make stability a fashion statement. White hair can be dyed with streaks (a friend of mine has purple hair) or shaved entirely.
Like I have done with my standing desk, find ways to adapt your doorway to flow. Looking for solutions is a form of creativity. Thank goodness for ingenious, creative solutions that make life better.
Creativity, mood, and flow
The state of flow has been closely connected to creativity, and much of the research began on creative pursuits such as music and art. But work of almost any kind can envelope flow. Like my writing, or someone’s building or teaching or some other vocation. Where a person has some sense of autonomy and control, creativity becomes part of the work, and dovetails with flow.
A 2011 study found that deep engagement, especially in work fueled by intrinsic motivation (rather than strictly extrinsic motivation, such as a paycheck), sparked creativity that lasted for many days. Both flow and creativity are also associated with more positive moods. So, finding and enjoying meaningful work can help us let go of suffering states, connect to deeper meaning, and experience the relaxed but attentive state of flow that’s beneficial to our well-being. (I’ll be sharing more about this in the future.)
My Valentine’s Day research
So, what was the research that began weeks before Valentine’s Day and aimed at what I might write for the site? It was flowers. My internet surf for related ideas brought up the secret language of flowers from times past when specific flowers said what could not be said aloud. That led to flower meanings, which led to which ones I might want to grow as beautiful messages of healing and productivity for myself.
I haven’t decided for certain yet which flowers I’ll add to my landscape, but imagining a bright thicket of Black-eyed Susan whispering “justice” on a summer’s breeze makes me smile. So does the thought of a colorful patch of Butterfly Weed reminding me to tell old rumination loops in my thinking to “let me go.” The concept brings a whole new and creative element to my annual late winter garden planning!
When we’re dumped by adult kids, it’s up to us to take charge of our well-being and make something more of our precious time on the Earth. For your own good, to find meaning, spark creativity, and enhance your mood, I challenge you to consider your own past experiences with “flow.” Then, get creative with how you see your interests, your work, your hobbies, and your life. You can find flow in purging your kitchen cabinets of family-size bowls and bins you no longer need. Or dive into day-long cooking you can freeze in small portions for easy, healthy dinners that will nourish you all month. Re-do your home for your next life phase, connect a much-loved hobby to a bigger social pursuit, or find meaning in decluttering for your own ease and to someday help an heir.
No matter your life or circumstances, consider how your pursuits can enhance autonomy and connect to a bigger purpose for your life—right now or into the future. Time passes much too quickly. You might as well spend some of it the zone.