By finding your flow
Written by Kristy Iervasi
Imagine you are running your first half marathon and can see the end in sight. You’ve been training for this moment for months. You feel the wind whipping past your face, your feet as they strike the ground, each heartbeat as the blood pumps through your veins. You simply feel like you are flowing through the air. Nothing else around you matters.. You can’t hear anything, you don’t know what time it is, you forget all your worries. The only thing you are focused on is the next stride.
You sprint through the finish line as all of the joy, pride and excitement runs through you. As you come back down to reality you reflect on the run. You realise that as you were running your mind became so absorbed in the activity it was like you forgot yourself, it was as though you were in ‘the zone’.
Have you ever felt this? You may have been painting, reading, exercising or working on a project, where nothing else seems to matter but the activity you are doing. This feeling has been researched by positive psychologists for many years. The state of consciousness this is referring to has been coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as ‘the flow’.
What is the FLOW
The thesis of Csikszentmihalyi’s [pronounced: Cheeks-sent-me-high] most popular book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) was that happiness isn’t actually a fixed state or something that happens, it is something we learn and develop as we achieve ‘flow’ in our lives.
“The key aspect to flow is control: in the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
Much like the marathon example above, the flow is when you are so absorbed in a task at hand, that you feel an absence of self, and you have a merging of your awareness into the activity you are engaging in.
“The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge. (Tavris, 1990).”
Finding tasks that allow you to feel this flow-like state may be the key to discovering your true passions in life.
The history behind the flow
The reason Csikszentmihalyi started to explore this theory was he wondered how wealth and happiness were connected. The data he found suggested that money, or increases in income, wasn’t the answer to happiness. He decided to explore where in life we are actually happy. Csikszentmihalyi interviewed creatives such as artists, painters and musicians. Through these interviews, he found there was a general theme: when these creatives, and even athletes he interviewed, were doing their chosen activity they experienced a feeling of ecstasy. They lost track of time, the sound would flow in and out and they felt like they were in the zone.
The study of the flow then commenced as Csikszentmihalyi (1990) was able to find the connection between the flow and subjective well-being, life satisfaction, work productivity, motivation, company loyalty and general happiness.
How to achieve flow
Flow can be achieved while doing a task you enjoy, something you truly love to do. It could be weight lifting, writing, swimming or woodworking.
To get to the flow, there is a spot between the difficulty of the task and your level of skill.
For example, if you take on a task that is too challenging for your skill level, you’re likely to feel anxious. If the task is too easy for your skill level then you’ll be bored by the lack of challenge. Therefore, to get into the flow the task has to be challenging enough for your skill level but not too easy where there is no challenge at all.
We are also more likely to fall into the flow state when it’s an activity we already have skills in or have practised. Think of a singer on stage ready to perform, they know how to sing, but the task of singing in front of a group of people reaches the level of challenge without boredom.
When looking for the flow lookout for these characteristics:
- Clear goals for the task
- There is no sense of time
- Reward or feedback is imminent
- Activity is intrinsically rewarding
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- Balance between challenge and skills
- Concentration is completely on the activity
As these points indicate, flow can be achieved by ensuring the activity is challenging, requires the appropriate level of skill, immediate feedback and has defined success metrics.
It is important to note that the flow is not in a static state. It is dynamic and ever-changing because as your skill for the activity increases, the challenge reduces. This will lead to it being too easy for you, so it is important that the activity has room to get more challenging over time.
Going beyond the flow
While research on the flow mainly focused on creative and productivity activities, Csikszentmihalyi notes that it can also be helpful in relationships.
When people get good at the flow state, they are then able to use it to turn a potentially negative experience into a challenge they can enjoy. By using this skill they can then maintain inner self-control and happiness throughout life's adversities.
By using the flow you can not only find your passion in life but might find that life is your passion!
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Tavris, C. (1990, March 18). Contentment is hard work. The New York Times.
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