I’d like you to take a couple minutes and visualize a time where you “lost yourself” in whatever you were doing. If you’re an athlete, maybe it was during the last game or match you played? Perhaps you sat down to work on a project you really enjoy and the next thing you knew three hours had passed. During this time of intense engagement you probably felt like your skills were being used to their upmost capabilities and the task wasn’t too difficult as to frustrate you or too easy as to bore you. You probably don’t reach this state when you’re working on math problems that are above your ability to understand or destroying your little brother in a tennis match.
When you’re able to enter this state of optimal experience you generally feel really good about yourself afterward. You feel like the activity was worthwhile to have done even if it was physically uncomfortable or difficult during it. Looking at a marathon runner’s face would generally make you think that they don’t feel particularly well but most of them will tell you afterward that they were glad they did it. Everything I’ve described here falls under one heading that positive psychologists have spent a lot of time studying and trying to understand.
I just described the “flow” state.
I know I mentioned flow in the introduction to this series but didn’t go into too much detail. In this article I’m going to dive in a little bit deeper to what this psychological state is.
THE ORIGINS OF FLOW
The name that is usually attributed to the study of flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi began his research into flow many years ago when he noticed that many artists engrossed in their work would occasionally ignore personal concerns and needs like food or the bathroom. What was going on in their minds and why did working on their art seem to take precedence over everything else? Thus marked Czikszentmihalyi’s research into what he eventually came to call flow.
First of all, the name flow was given to this psychological state of extreme involvement because many of the people Csikszentmihalyi interviewed kept describing it as if they were caught up in a river or a current of water. They didn’t have to exert much energy and yet they were swept along.
As I described at the beginning, the flow state is characterized by losing track of time, being fully engaged with whatever you’re doing, and feeling like your skills and abilities are being used to their greatest ability. Because the experience seems to be so positive, it is often also described as “optimal experience.” As you can imagine, this is a highly enjoyable state to be in and being able to enter it usually means good things for the quality of your work and the quality of your life.
FLOW CAN BE TAUGHT
I have a soft spot for Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow because his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is what turned me on to the idea of positive psychology. Until I read his book I didn’t realize that a.) positive psychology existed and b.) that it holds many important answers for some of the world’s toughest questions. The thing that most excited me about flow is that entering and promoting it can be practiced and taught.
Think about that for a minute.
That feeling you get when you’re at your very best and doing something that you love can be practiced to the point where you can enter that state doing nearly anything. People who report entering flow regularly also tend to be happier and have higher life satisfaction. The thought of feeling like I do when I’m writing an article or playing a game of hockey all the time is exciting and powerful. I want to learn how to do that and how to teach others to do that as well.
Besides the obvious implications for living a happier and better life, think about the other myriad of applications where flow could be vital.
APPLICATIONS OF FLOW IN THE REAL WORLD
School: Think for a moment what education might be like if most of the students spent most of their time in the flow state. Think about what teaching would be like if teachers were able to enter the flow state during their lessons and planning periods more easily. A student who is fully engaged in their work is going to learn more than the disengaged student. The teacher that is fully focused on the task at hand will be more effective than his colleague who is going through the motions. How can flow be promoted in schools?
Work: Imagine going into a job every day that allowed you to use your skills and abilities to their fullest extent. Going into a job where you could lose yourself in the work will not be a drain on your psyche like many jobs tend to be. You’ll be more productive and be more invested in the well-being of the company. How can managers promote flow among their workers? How can the work environment be changed to increase flow?
Relationships: Ideally, spending time with your partner and closest friends should be an exercise in flow. Deep conversations and engaging experiences with the people you care about are what strong relationships are built of. If you know how to structure your relationships so that they are conducive to flow I’ll bet they will become more positive overall.
The potential benefit of knowing about flow and being able to enter it doing nearly anything is profound. I’m continuously working toward the point where I can feel just as engaged doing laundry, going for a run, or talking to a close friend as I do during my own periods of flow (usually writing). An engaged life is a conscious life.
Flow is our ticket to that reality.