“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Picture this: you are driving down the Amalfi Coast in Italy, one of the most breathtaking roads in Europe, with the Spectacular Mediterranean coastline in your view. Though you have gone down this winding road before, you have never been able to ‘dominate’ it until now. You take off, striking every twist and turn perfectly, effortlessly. Your actions seem frozen in time, your movements are calculated, and every little sound becomes more intense. You are flowing down the coast, feeling like you have become one with the road.
Congratulations. You’ve had, quite literally, a peak experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as the FLOW, a state of optimal experience where people are so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. As Csikszentmihalyi further explains it: ‘The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.‘
Who is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and the pioneer of the scientific study of happiness. His seminal work in flow and optimal experience started to gain its initial shape in his childhood when he was put in an Italian prison during the Second World War. There, amidst the misery and loss, he discovered chess as a way to be immediately transported out of the harsh reality in which he was existing and into a reality where nothing mattered except the precise rules and goals of the game. But, more importantly, what Csikszentmihalyi discovered was that people could feel happy even when the world around them was burning.
After the war, Csikszentmihalyi traveled to Switzerland, where he attended a lecture by Carl Gustav Jung, which sparked his interest in psychology. Mihaly decided to pursue this discipline and moved to the United States, where he started his first observations and studies on artists and other creative types. He noticed that the act of creating seemed more important than the finished work itself, and he was fascinated to discover ‘the state of flow’ as he called it, in which a person is completely absorbed in an activity with intense focus and creative involvement. From that point on, Csikszentmihalyi decided to devote his life’s work to scientific identification of the different elements involved in achieving a state of flow.
What is Flowing?
In his book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,’ Csikszentmihalyi explains that constant pursuit of things can’t make us happy. After some point, when our basic needs are met, buying an even bigger house or a faster car isn’t the way to happiness. So, what is? It is changing the contents of our consciousness. One of the best ways is to put ourselves in a state of optimal experience named flow.
In this state, your concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything unimportant or to worry about your problems and previous failures. When you are in the flow, your self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. You are so immersed in what you are doing that your brain can’t focus on anything else. In a flow state, you are not regretting what you did yesterday or stressing about the things to come. You exist in this perfect moment of personal excellence and absolute focus.
Why is Flow So Important Nowadays?
Our minds are programmed to turn to threats, body and mind alarms, unfinished business, failures, and desires when there is nothing else more urgent to do, precisely when our attention is left free to wander. When left without a task to focus their attention on, most people find themselves getting progressively depressed. In flow, there is no place for such rumination.
You need to have the expertise to judge the difficulty, and if you can cope with the problem, that will produce the state of flow. Although flow happens differently for everyone, typically, it occurs when we are doing something that we enjoy and in which we are pretty skilled. This can be anything from writing, drawing, painting, tennis, skiing, dancing, or mountain climbing.
In addition to honing our skills and making activities more enjoyable, the flow has several other benefits, such as:
- Better emotional regulation – As the flow increases, people can experience more growth toward emotional complexity. Practicing flow can help people develop skills that allow them to regulate their emotions effectively.
- Greater fulfillment and enjoyment – People in a flow state tend to enjoy more what they are doing. As the task becomes more enjoyable, we are more likely to find it rewarding and fulfilling.
- Greater sense of happiness – The state of flow can be linked to increased satisfaction, joy, and self-actualization.
- Improved intrinsic motivation – Since the flow is a positive mental state, it can help people in increasing enjoyment and inspiration. Intrinsic motivation involves performing actions for internal rewards.
- Greater engagement – People who are in a state of flow feel fully involved in the task at hand.
- Improved performance – Flow can enhance performance in various areas, including learning, teaching, athletics, and artistic creativity.
- Learning and development of skills – Because achieving a state of flow suggests a substantial mastery of specific skills; people need to keep seeking new challenges and information to maintain this state.
- Increased creativity – State of flow often occurs during creative tasks, which can inspire greater artistic and creative pursuits.
As Mihaly explains, flow is essential not just for making the present more enjoyable but also because it builds our self-confidence, which allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind. In other words, it is in paying attention that we become aware of every moment of our lives. We can see our goals and progress, and see what we can do to improve our and the experiences of those around us.
Read the second part of this article here.