While I was at Half-Price Books today, I had to wait in the store while the store clerks went through the boxes of books I’d brought in. So I wandered around (with absolutely NO intention whatsoever of buying any books as I’ve got too many to get rid of already ), but I needed something to occupy my mind while I waited.
So I picked up a book I had read sometime ago. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee), which is a practical guide to achieving flow in every day life and is based on Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
For those of you aren’t familiar with the concept of flow, here’s the Wikipedia definition:
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
So, for example, bring to mind any activity in which you weren’t aware of the passage of time, you weren’t bored and you actually felt kind of chilled out. That’s flow. You can experience flow while playing a musical instrument, writing a poem, painting a picture, even driving a car.
What’s important about the flow state is that it has to be something that challenges you just enough to cause you to concentrate, but it’s not so difficult to do that you feel anxious about it. This chart might help.
Being in flow means you don’t want to be bored when you’re doing an activity but you also don’t want to be overly anxious about it either. So, for example, you wouldn’t want to do brain surgery unless you’re a brain surgeon because it’s an activity that would be beyond your skill level and would be far too challenging.
But, let’s say you like to play tennis. You’re a fair to middling player so you’ve got enough skill and it’s challenging enough that you can enjoy it without being either bored or overly worried, you’re getting feedback on how you’re doing, you voluntary chose to do it and and it’s engaging. That’s flow.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the more often we’re in a flow state in our everyday lives, the happier we’ll be. In his opinion, being happy isn’t so much about having more things or more money. His research suggests that as long as a person’s basic, primary needs are being met, having more money doesn’t necessarily increase happiness. It’s how we do things, not what we’re doing that brings happiness.
Watching television, for example, may be relaxing and help us unwind after a stressful day, but we’re not in a flow state when we’re doing it. Watching television doesn’t engage us or challenge us. It’s too passive an activity. Reading, however, can put us in a bit more of a flow state, and I’m sure there are some of you who’ve gotten so deep into a book you forget how much time has passed. I’ve never had that experience watching television. I’m always aware of the time, one way or another.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some polemic about the virtues of reading versus the sterility of watching television. My sister doesn’t own a television, that’s fine with her and I’ve got no issue with it. I, however, do own a television and I like watching TV, thank you very much. But I also know that watching too much of it can not only depress me but prove very unhealthy. It’s all that passive sitting and, additionally, the consumption of high-calorie snacks while doing so. 😉
But I digress. Finding flow is something that can be very worthwhile, and can go a long way in improving your life. It’s not going to be the same for everyone. What is a flow activity to me might seem like utter drudgery to you. I think one of the best ways to discover flow is to set yourself a goal. Even if it’s a small one. Like learning some new skill. Remember, you want to do the kind of activity that involves engagement on your part but also challenges you enough that you’re not bored.
Writing is definitely a flow activity. You’re putting words on paper, you’re using your writing skills, but you’re also challenging yourself each time you write to do it more clearly, effectively, imaginatively.
Here’s a quote from an article about flow over at the Huffington Post.
In order for a flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You should feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion — a complete loss of self-consciousness.
And yet, even with the absence of emotion, a flow state leaves you feeling refreshed, content, even ecstatic.
If you’re wondering what you can do to find a state of flow, these articles might help:
So ask yourself are there any activities in your life that give you a sense of flow? What are they? Are there ways you can increase the amount of time you spend in flow? If you can’t think of any activities, are there some you could start doing? Gardening, for example? Yoga, painting, playing a musical instrument? Even hanging out with good friends can bring about a state of flow.
Advertisers would have us believe that the key to happiness is buying things. Maybe. If it is true, it’s a transitory happiness and can cost you quite a bit in the short and long run.
Here’s a TED talk from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about flow.