Anxiety. Boredom. No control. Repeat.
Is this your life?
Yes, we all have times in our lives that are less than idyllic. But if you feel that your life is just a sequence of these types of events, it is time for a change.
There are different ways that we can add to the contentment of our lives. A lot of them come from within by changing the way you look at life. Only you have the power to make the change. I know that sometimes it is easier said than done. We all struggle sometimes, but it gets to a point where you just need to do it. You need to stop thinking about it and just charge in.
So, let’s do this. One of the ways to bring happiness to your life is flow. It happens to be one of my favorite topics because it is so inspiring. It is a positive psychology concept and will be the topic of this article.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and positive psychology
The concept of flow was introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is a widely cited and important psychologist. If you have about 19 minutes and are interested in his own presentation on flow you can visit his TED talk, Flow, the secret to happiness.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was greatly influenced by his childhood in Europe during the Second World War. Seeing that some people were able to have happiness after the enormous devastation led to his quest to look into what makes life worth living. Attending a presentation by Carl Jung as a young man seems to have cemented his interest in psychology.
On a side note, I can’t help but feel some affection for him watching his TED talk. He is so inspiring and also reminds me so much of my late father. He was also an enlightened man who was equally influenced as a child in Europe during World War II.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is part of the positive psychology field. Per the IPPA, “positive psychology is the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive.” I love the positive approach which is in contrast to traditional psychology which often looks at things that can go wrong and why. We are all humans living on Earth so we know that things aren’t always “perfect”, am I right? So, it is nice to study how to take control over our well-being and be fulfilled. That is definitely a field of study I am interested in learning more about. I also touch on this topic on my article called How to find out if you’re an introvert.
That is just a little background for you, now let’s look into flow.
What is flow?
Flow is a state of consciousness where one is completely immersed in an activity with energized focus and positive engagement. The term flow came about because so many of those who experienced the state used the word flow to describe the feeling of natural progression during the state. I also link it closely to inspiration as you can read in 9 muses to inspire you.
Some examples of this are:
- when an athlete is performing at their optimal level (in the zone)
- an artist is creating a piece of art (aesthetic rapture)
- during a religious meditation (ecstasy)
- a scientist working on a new theory (I’m not aware of a special term for scientists, but there definitely should be one.)
To better visualize the concept I have included the diagram below. It displays the various states encountered by someone as a function of the relationship between challenge and skills. Beginning where the challenge level and your skills are above average and equally matched, you encounter flow. Straying too far from that balance and you get arousal (alert but skills aren’t quite to the level they need to be) or control (mastery with little challenge).
It is easy to see how the activities in our life match the states of anxiety (test taking?), boredom (monotonous presentations?), and apathy (chewing gum?). If you take one of those activities and just tweak the challenge or skill level and it can be turned into a flow experience. Yes, you could become the best trick bubble-gum artist in the world! As you can surmise, it is a highly situational dependant on the person, activity, and skill level.
So, there are certain elements that differentiate flow as opposed to run-of-the-mill focus. These elements are:
- There is a clear set goal(s).
- The challenge and skill level are closely balanced and matched.
- The action and awareness are so closely linked they become spontaneous.
- There is immediate feedback to allow for constant reaction.
- Complete focus of attention with no distractions.
- No fear of losing control or failure.
- Loss of self-consciousness due to complete immersion.
- Transcending the sense of time.
- The activity is an end in itself. Doing the activity just to do the activity.
Why do I want flow?
If you need more convincing, WorkMad, a group bringing the knowledge and benefits of positive psychology to work environments has outlined the benefits of engaging in flow activity.
- Control. Having the knowledge that you are able to make decisions and no one else can take it from you is very empowering.
- Freedom from negative thoughts. It isn’t that flow is going to take away negativity, it won’t. However, your attention and thoughts are so focused on the activity at hand that there is no more attention left for anything else, including negative thoughts. So as far as you are concerned, they don’t exist.
- Mastery. By constantly presenting yourself with just enough challenge as to not frustrate, but teach, you will consistently improve your skills. Dedicating time to flow in an activity for long enough you will eventually master expertise. Who doesn’t want to become a master at something?
- Personal growth. Practicing flow teaches complex iterative psychological processes. It enables feelings of differentiation (feeling competent with skills and mastery) and integration (sharing common goals and connectedness).
- Confidence. Having control and increasing your skills, will give you confidence. In addition, while being so immersed in flow you don’t have any mental energy or attention left to be preoccupied by self-doubt or who you are. You just are.
During flow, you are in harmony because all of your thoughts, feelings, intentions, and senses are all aligned towards a common goal. There is no struggle, barriers, or conflicts within yourself. Just your entire being engaged toward a goal without distraction. It is a completely efficient use of your psychic energy.
That is a good feeling. We may not be in control of things around us, but we can control ourselves. To not be spinning your wheels on fruitless efforts is great. It increases the quality of your experiences. That is all anyone could ask for.
Getting more flow in your life
How do you get more flow, and thus more happiness, in your life? Set up the conditions for flow in your everyday activities.
The great thing about flow is that anyone can do it. You don’t need a fancy education, money, athletic ability, intelligence, or anything. All you need to do is try an activity that you are mildly interested in. It could even be reading a book that is interesting to you. Don’t you love getting lost in a book? or a good puzzle? *wink*
- Make goals that provide you with feedback on a quick and regular basis.
- Allow yourself to get immersed in the activity.
- Focus and don’t allow distractions to divert your attention.
- Balance the skills required with the challenges being presented. If something is too hard, make smaller more manageable tasks. If you are bored and have mastered the task, increase the challenge.
- Engage in an activity that is rewarding in itself. It shouldn’t be a means to an end. It should be the end.
The more you practice flow activities, the easier it is to achieve. The Psychology Today article listed in the Resources mentions a study that showed that the more often people reported reading books the more flow experiences they encountered and the opposite was shown for television viewing. By the way, television viewing is often mentioned as the opposite of flow. Look at the criteria for flow and it makes sense. So if you want more flow in your life, turn off the television.
Are you ready to get a little more happiness in your life?
Are there activities in your life that you could tweak to get more satisfaction from? Are you willing or able to make those changes?
Have you already done this in your life?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments and poll.
Contentment is Hard Work at The New York Times
Finding Flow at Psychology Today
Five Reasons to Focus on Flow at WorkMad
Flow Theory at Education.com
International Positive Psychology Association at IPPAnetwork.org
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at The Pursuit of Happiness
Wikipedia contributors. “Flow (psychology).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 May. 2015. Web. 28 May. 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 May. 2015. Web. 27 May. 2015.