I love the smell of cow dung.
I was reminded of this recently during a bicycle ride in the outskirts of the city. Despite the beauty of the bucolic area, I had been experiencing the training ride as long and strenuous — until I caught the distinctive scent of cow manure.
The odor instantly conjured up very specific happy memories from childhood, reminding me of something I had loved. I found myself inhaling deeply to rediscover a brief glimpse of yesteryear, felt a sudden jolt of joy and then pedaled on with renewed energy.
This reflective moment allowed me to have a connection with some positive emotions, which took me away from the strain of the task at hand and permitted me instead to immerse more fully in the present activity with confidence and enthusiasm.
I suspect that what I had experienced in that moment, at least in part, was being in a state of “flow” and that I was having the sensation of being “in the zone.” This is the mindfulness and positive psychology concept which is believed to channel energy into a feeling of spontaneous joy. A flow experience involves focusing deeply on nothing but the activity itself.
The term “flow” was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the Hungarian psychology professor, who is known as the leading researcher on positive psychology. The word “flow” was chosen because it was believed to reflect the metaphor of a water current carrying someone along. As described by Csíkszentmihályi, “In such an activity, concentration is fully engaged in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and sense of time is distorted.”
For me, the aromatic smell of the cow pastures took me back instantly to childhood summers when I was sent to stay with my aunt in the mountains for a few weeks. Our temporary residence was a small hut that she rented from a dairy farmer, with the cow stalls closer to the bedroom than was the outhouse. The accommodations were very basic and the setting rustic, but the atmosphere for me, having come from a small suburban town, was wonderful. Cows roamed freely all around the large expanse of the grassy hilltop, and cow chips were naturally a significant part of the beautiful landscape.
Given that my aunt was most often busy working on some hut improvement project, I was left with many hours of creating my own games among the boulders, the streams, and the cow patties. I would attempt to connect with the cows, those large, tame animals who watched me inquisitively but nonchalantly with their large, soulful eyes. I created imaginary friends in the rocks and secret passageways among the trees, feeling peaceful, happy and surprisingly entertained. My vivid imagination, my tall plastic boots, and my immodesty for singing loudly all added to the entirety of the experience in which I was blissful, adventuresome, and carefree.
I don’t relish in the aroma of roadkill. I don’t seek to soak in the smell of skunk. Nor do I even particularly like the odor of horse manure. Yet, there simply seems to be something different about the distinctive smell of cow dung that brings back positive, absorbing memories. Responding in this way was not a conscious decision, but it has clearly stood the test of time.
Scientists have learned that the olfactory system has intimate access to the amygdala and hippocampus, the areas of our brain which process emotion and which are responsible for associative learning. Memories induced by smell are so automatic and instantaneous that it can feel as if one has, without trying, momentarily slipped back in time. Thus I have an associated, conditioned response to the scent of cow manure: My brain has linked a smell, a reminiscence, and a positive emotion. An olfactory memory can bring out a fuller, richer experience of flow, unlike visual or auditory memories, because there is less thinking involved.
Flow is known to produce feelings of enjoyment and performance enhancement. This performance concept has been studied in various fields, including those of education, sports, art, and work productivity. In the book, The Meditative Mind, Daniel Goleman lists five key elements of flow:
- merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on the task at hand;
- focusing attention in pure involvement without concern for outcome;
- self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity;
- skills adequate to meet the environmental demand; and
- clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response.
The focus on single-minded energy to achieve a task at hand certainly has its place, though it may also be useful to consider ways of being more open to spontaneous experiences in which the primary outcome is some connection with happiness and joy.