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The Flow – Gateway to Happiness and More?

The Flow - Gateway to Happiness and More?I experienced it all the time when I played guitar.

I’d start “practicing” and the next thing I’d know it’s the middle of the night. “What the heck happened, it was 9 o’clock just a minute ago,” and now its hours later.

I was so absorbed in “perfecting” the song that I completely lost track of time. The usual mind chatter that’s normally a constant companion – nonexistent. There were no interruptions from my “inner roommate” the whole time I was playing. Nothing else seemed to matter.

I would spend hours working on a “riff” or fine tuning a lyrical passage; I was busy ‘loving on’ my instrument nonstop.

In that last sentence I should have put the word “working” in quotes; yes it’s true, I was expending megawatts of energy, but it never felt like work. Heck, at this level of focus I didn’t even notice I was burning energy, at least not until I was done.

Any of this sound familiar to you? I’ll bet it does.

I believe that everybody’s had moments – or for some of you, real artiest, more like days, of a creative outburst when you were so completely “in the moment.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi This phenomenon is called the “Flow” experience, a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which describes a state of intense absorption and involvement with the present moment. (If you like to learn the correct pronunciation of his name, watch the video below.)

What is the Flow?

The Harvard Medical School published a special report in Positive Psychology and this is how they answered the question; “What is flow?”

You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.

You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.

You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Instead, you are completely focused on the activity—mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your work, creating tiers of beautiful icing for a cake, or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation.

You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.

You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.

How the “flow” experience relates to happiness also comes from Csikszentmihalyi and a number of other positive psychologists who argue that a happy life is actually a life characterized by being completely absorbed in what you are doing and creating.

This leads me to one other attribute of the “flow” covered by the Harvard Medical School report, which is, “You would like to repeat the experience.” I would add the word “often” to the end of that sentence.

How do you repeat the flow experience – often?

Good news. They have a formula.

Bad news. You have to follow it.

It seems that the sought after experience is a balancing act between activities that challenge you and the skill level you need to meet these challenges.

Think about how many times you’ve heard an athlete say they were in the “zone.” The ‘zone’ is the ‘flow.’

They’ve reached a skill level that is in tune with their task. It’s no different whether you’re a painter, a musician, a welder, a broker or a mom. Every one of us is capable of experiencing ‘flow’ no matter what the challenge, that is, if we meet the criteria that make up the formula. (“High skill+high challenge=flow – link to the Harvard article graphic)

Here’s the catch with the ‘flow’ experience, it’s a balancing act, and as the author of the study put it, “When your skill is high but the challenge is low, boredom is the likely result. Set the challenge too high, though, by undertaking something that is way beyond your skill, and {then} you’re out of the flow again.”

There are practices, which according to the research that will “encourage the flow experience.”

One of the more surprising finding of this study, which “encourages the flow experience” is people are more likely to find themselves in the flow at work rather than in the home, or more, accurately, at work rather than during their “leisure time.”

It seems that when we are enjoying our leisure time we’re more likely to ‘zone out’ instead of getting ‘in the zone.’

Why would we want to give up some of our hard earned leisure time to practice ‘encouraging’ our flow experience?

According to positive psychologist extraordinaire, Sonja Lyubomirsky, “Finding flow involves the ability to expand your mind and body to its limits, to strive to accomplish something difficult, novel, or worthwhile, and discover rewards in the process of each moment, indeed in life its self.”  That’s encouraging.

(Side-note: If you’re interested in practices on how to increase your flow experience I would suggest picking up a copy of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, “The How of Happiness.” See below)

Abraham MaslowActually, Lyubomirsky’s description is more than encouraging; it reminds me of Abraham Maslow’s “peak experience” with the exception that in Maslow’s case the experience leads to “self-actualization.”

The big difference is that one experience (flow) arises out of ‘doing’ or action and the other (peak experience) happens “spontaneously” out of simply “being.”

As Maslow so eloquently observed in “Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences:”

“The great lesson from the true mystics {is that} the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.”

He didn’t believe that we needed to be a saint, a seer or sit on mountain top in Tibet.

Maslow believed that the likely hood of having a peak experience depended more on your emotional health than on a religious ritual and that the more often they happened the more often they would happen. In other words the happier you are the greater the likelihood of having more happy experiences.

Happiness, according to Dr. Deepak Chopra in his book “The Happiness Prescription,” is just the beginning on our road to fulfill a deeper desire for “the freedom that comes with complete awakening.”

The “flow” experience leads us to become involved in life in a positive way, to be present and enjoy our activities, to grow and derive pleasure from positive achievement and to feel a strong sense of worthiness.

What I’m suggesting is that the “flow” is a gateway to an increase in “likely hood of having a peak experience,” which in turn is a path to an experience of happiness that is infinitely expanded.

In Dr. Chopra’s words, “You will be headed for nothing less that enlightenment.”

Deepak cautions us not to think of enlightenment as some “mystical state,” rather it is more correctly thought of as a state of “expanded consciousness;” think of a state of sustained flow or a perpetual peak experience.

I believe this is what Einstein meant when is said, “I want to know the mind of God, the rest are details,” or the ancient philosopher Plotinus admonition, “Our concern is not merely to be sinless, but to be God.”

Is the “flow” a gateway to happiness and more? Answering for myself, I would say “yes it is,” because evidence shows that the more we are present in our actions (flow) the happier we are and the happier we are the more likely we are to have “peak experiences” (experiences of enlightenment.)

Dr. Chopra explained it this way, “Everything we fear in the world and want to change can be transformed through happiness, the simplest desire we have, and the also the most profound.”

Please share your thoughts about “flowing into happiness.”


A video Introduction to  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi




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