One Saturday night last month, as I returned home from work and followed my typical routine, it felt like something was… amiss. I felt restless, uneasy, and there’s no better way to put it, but kind of overwhelmed. My thoughts were racing and it felt like so much had to be done. Neither could I get myself to wind down nor focus on anything, not even watching something mindless on Hotstar.
So I made up my mind to do the only thing that made sense.
I decided to finally unpack and solve a 300 piece jigsaw puzzle that I had bought (and completely forgotten about) a couple of months ago. I remember buying the puzzle because it was a picture of one of my favourite paintings of all time, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The decision was rather spontaneous, since my jigsaw puzzle-solving talents had only last been explored when I was a child.
I found myself entranced by the puzzle's challenge. I worked at it until 2 in the morning, and my determination to solve it persisted through the next two days. It’s uncanny how the puzzle consumed my attention wholly; I was swept in the process, unable to tear myself away. Thankfully, since I had nothing urgent lined up, I could fully immerse myself in the task at hand.
It turns out solving this puzzle carried valuable lessons that extended far beyond fitting colourful cardboard pieces together. Why don’t you join me as we explore the insights I gained through this seemingly modest endeavour?
First and foremost, all the feeling of overwhelming restlessness had alleviated. I wondered what made the feelings go away? Was I merely distracting myself by solving the puzzle or did I finally learn how to deal with the overwhelm? Don’t get me wrong, I still knew that there was a lot to be done and dealt with. Yes, I was aware of the things that I had to do but it didn’t quite overwhelm me anymore.
So, maybe I wasn’t just… distracting myself?
It was as if the noise inside my head had gone silent while I solved the puzzle, and once I was done, I was left with a feeling of calm and a sense of structure for what I had to do next. Now, let’s take a look at the noises in my head that had actually caused so many unpleasant feelings.
The noises that make me feel tense, restricted and contracted. It is the same feeling I feel when I am constantly reaching for my phone, or constantly looking to be stimulated, constantly seeking some kind of distraction. There's a kind of tense energy that has been caught up in my whole being. As a society, we tend to view happiness as a kind of contracted state - as a dopamine rush - but there's a more sustainable kind of fulfilling happiness that no one talks about. It's a more open, expanded state of happiness that corresponds to the kind of pristine attention we get when we’re watching a play undisturbed, enjoying a beautiful piece of art in a museum, going for a trek, or reading a novel.
That’s what I experienced while solving the jigsaw.
It wasn't just a dopamine rush, but an expanded state of satisfaction. I was in a state of ‘Flow’. It is characterised by a complete immersion in the task at hand, resulting in a heightened sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. With the state of flow, you experience internal silence. You're using that attention that you need in order to focus on that activity so much that there's no space for self-referential thoughts in your head. Turns out that it can make for some very happy experiences, which makes flow something that brings us untold happiness.
Another thing I noticed while solving the jigsaw was that this activity required a mindset shift. The pieces wouldn't come together instantly; they required time, attention, and careful consideration. This process-focused approach served as a powerful metaphor for life itself. It's easy to become fixated on the end goal while overlooking the importance of the journey. By immersing ourselves in the process, we can cultivate patience and learn to appreciate the smaller -often overlooked - moments that contribute to the bigger picture. I remember I exclaimed at every little piece that fit in.
What I also noticed at the end was that I had a structure for what I had to do next and was much calmer about it. I was curious about this effect, so I did some research on it. Research shows intentionally listening in silences or noises or just listening to nothing helps reset the nervous system. I am glad a spontaneous choice led me to a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle.
As colours merged into Van Gogh's masterpiece, I found my way through internal clamour to tranquil focus.