In 2014, my fiancé and I moved from Washington, D.C. to a small seaside town in New Jersey right as everything was shutting down for the winter. I worked from home, and I could finish most of what I needed to do in a few hours, so I’d spend the rest of the day playing video games, messing around on the internet, going on aimless strolls, and reading bleak, nihilistic horror stories. Since we shared a car, when my fiancé drove to work, I was more or less stranded. I would sometimes go days without leaving the apartment, and I rarely interacted with more than two or three people in a week.
Slowly, I sank into depression. It took a while to recognize – contrary to popular belief, depression doesn’t always mean constant feelings of sadness or melancholy. For me, it was a gradual disengagement from the world. My brain felt foggy and cold, and very little could pull me out of the haze and back into the real world. The only reliable relief I could find was through cooking.
When we first moved to New Jersey, I missed the energy of the big city, but I found excitement in the fact that we had a real kitchen. Shortly before the move, I took a knife skills class, but in our D.C. apartment, my sole practice came with chopping onions and garlic on top of an old dresser. Now my fiancé and I could cook elaborate meals for each other.
I could chop on a countertop instead of a dresser and continue to expand my abilities as a chef. As I sank into the depression, I began to feel guilty that I wasn’t the same person that I had been when we’d met – that I wasn’t as emotionally present or fun to be around. But I could show my fiancé that I still loved her by cooking her a decent dinner. That became one of the only things I could motivate myself to do on a regular basis.
Over time, I began to realize that the best parts of my day were when I was cooking. It was a rare moment where I felt like a real human again. All of the self-loathing, all of the nihilism that occupied my thoughts in the middle of the night or in the doldrums of the afternoon evaporated when I got into the kitchen. And it wasn’t because I was doing something that felt good; it was because I was doing something that required my full attention. I wasn’t able to think dark, brooding thoughts while handling a giant knife.
I found that I could get lost in the act of preparing a meal – there was something zen in the preparation of the ingredients, in the cooking, and in seeing it all come together. My movements while cooking were not wasted; they were efficient. My thoughts were focused. I was not worried about deadlines or getting exercise or being a burden on my loved ones. At the end of the cooking, I’d look down at something I’d created, something that tasted pretty damn good, and my tiny corner of the world felt a lot less meaningless. I felt exhilarated, fulfilled, and – occasionally – even happy.
Finding flow in everyday life
Psychologists call what I was experiencing a “flow state,” and it’s broadly recognized as the state that makes human beings the happiest. It is a state of total absorption in the moment. It is what athletes feel when they are in the middle or a play, race or routine. It is what writers feel when they are really in the zone. And it is what chefs and cooks feel while they are preparing a meal. It is not something you are conscious of doing; it is simple “living in the now.”
To get into a flow state, you have to be doing something that requires your full attention. That means it must be something that is challenging without being impossible. If your mind can wander while you’re doing it, you won’t get into the state. Cooking is good in this regard because it frequently involves using things that are either pointy or are on fire, and because if you stop paying attention, you will usually ruin what you are preparing. So there’s no opportunity to drift off into a daydream haze. It’s also an activity that can increase in complexity the better you get. You can learn harder techniques, or experiment with new flavor combinations or cuisine styles, or you can teach yourself the art of presentation. There’s no final level of complete proficiency in food preparation. It is an endlessly complex activity.
The idea of flow was originally coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who found that people who sought out the flow state – rather than, say, material possessions or praise – tended to be happier people. And for people who have mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, flow states provide a much-needed reprieve from the prisons that our minds have turned into. “The best moments,” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Cooking, for me, became the difficult and worthwhile part of my day, even in the bleakest periods of my depression. If I became proficient enough in a recipe that I could make it basically without thinking, there were always more complicated recipes. I could challenge myself to make it better the next time, or to cook it just as well while leaving a cleaner kitchen. And at the end, I had something physical and real sitting in front of me that I could eat. It was a reminder that small things could have meaning, and that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Three and a half years later, I am in a much better place. I can’t give all of the credit to my improvement to cooking – I also have a very supportive group of family and friends around me, I’m spending less time online and more time in the gym, and I go to therapy every other week – but the realization that I did not need to seek out some abstract idea of “happiness,” but instead could just find meaning in the small challenges of my everyday life was a vital one.
If you’re in a similar place, the most common areas people find flow experiences is in creative or athletic activities. Musicians in particular often find themselves in flow states, but that doesn’t mean, if you’re depressed, that you should take up piano. You are probably going to burn out on it, because starting a new activity is usually pretty frustrating. Instead, find something that you’re already fairly competent at, and find new ways to challenge yourself with it.
Flow states can come from literally any activity (playing video games, cleaning your home, dressing yourself, doing mind-numbing data-entry, etc.). You simply need to set immediately achievable, fairly challenging goals for yourself, and then work on them. Depression was not, for me, a battle against sadness, but a battle against meaninglessness, and meaning can be found just about anywhere. Even in a plate of pasta.