“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. 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.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Imagine yourself having the experience described above. Are you happy? Has this happened in your life? It has probably not happened enough. What if you could learn to cultivate this experience so it begins to happen more and more often? What if happiness is a skill you have not been taught? Would you want to learn now? According to Mihaly, “it is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the content of our consciousness.”
Can you control the content of your consciousness? Most of us can’t. Lucky for us people have been studying this concept for millennia; and they have been taking notes. What? You are not inclined to read sacred texts on philosophy and spirituality? Fine fine fine. Today, we have the option of studying more modern, scientific approaches as well. One such source is the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Mihaly has spent the past 50 years studying happiness and building a, now widely acclaimed, theory about how it correlates with states of FLOW. His 1990 book Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience details the years of research that went into his theory. It turns out that FLOW is not at all unlike the states mystics have been reporting for thousands of years. What is different is the approach. But first, what is FLOW?
“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.” – wikipedia
You have experienced Flow. Some call it being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in a groove”. Whatever we call it, something magical happens when we become fully immersed in an activity. What you may not have realized is that this experience is one that you can cultivate.
“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. ” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (FLOW p.2 1990)
What Mihaly realized is that these states are accessible to anyone deeply immersed in a task. Perhaps the easiest place to see this is when we look at those who have mastered their craft. Musicians, athletes, scientists, chefs, entrepreneurs, the undertaking does not matter. When we immerse ourselves in an activity entirely something profound happens. In one sense, when we go deeply enough into a task we actually cease to exist in our own awareness. We disappear and only the activity remains. For those of you who are familiar with mysticism this might sound familiar. When experts experience FLOW it is not at all unlike mystical union where the goal is to overcoming the duality of self and object.
Speaking of a composer lost in the experience of creating new music Mihaly recounts, “that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist. And that sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration. But actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you. Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Ted Talk 2008)
The key to achieving FLOW lies in immersing yourself entirely in a task. You become absorbed in something other than, perhaps bigger than yourself. Starting to sound a bit more like spiritual practice? The American meditation teacher Shinzen Young describes Mihaly’s flow as “the pleasure derived from being in a state of samadhi as you do ordinary things.” In a sense, FLOW happens when you take an every day task and transform it into something overwhelming and uplifting. While it is true that FLOW can happen during any task, there are specific tasks and specific ways to approach activities that make it far more likely to happen. There are two approaches to cultivating FLOW, one is more spiritual, the other is more of a game.
Now that you have an idea what FLOW is you may be wondering How to create FLOW (read on)