I have recently been introduced to the concept of flow, created by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (No, this is not about just ‘going with the flow’ of life.)
In very simple terms flow is a state of being which occurs when your body/mind are being challenged and developed (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 3). There’s potential to access it if you have genuine enjoyment and connection to whatever activity you are doing.
“[T]he experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 4)
Examples of activities which can induce flow are: learning a new language, practicing music, training for an athletic feat, etc.
There are other activities we undergo regularly in order to satisfy basic human needs and instincts: eating, sleeping, sex. We can access flow during these times too, but it is very easy to glaze over the opportunities for growth & fulfilment in them due to their more habitual nature.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the ‘rules’ to accessing flow are as follows:
- Setting goals
- Becoming immersed in the activity
- Paying attention to what is happening
- Learning to enjoy the immediate experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 209-212).
“When a person is able to organise his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve, because…even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 40)
Accessing flow seems to take a great deal of discipline and practice. Modern life is busy, costs a lot, and is full of media which informs us how we are not good enough and what we should be striving to acquire in order to feel fulfilled. It’s possible our brains are not wired to “focus on the positive” or prioritise quality time which enriches us. But I think that we can train ourselves to do these things, at least some of the time! And if we are able to access flow even during the more ‘boring’ aspects of life, then I think it’s worth trying!
“How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 8-9).
It is completely in our control whether we strive to access flow. It is available to anyone, and once you learn to do this it can never be taken from you. This is empowering! There’s potential for great happiness to be achieved on an individual level, but the connectivity it invites also fosters happiness on a larger scale.
In dedicating ourselves to activities which are encompassing and fulfilling, there is potential to expand our consciousness of ourselves. We may begin to feel more connected to the resources and world around us. Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of a rock climber feeling connected to the wall/stone/sky (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 64). This same feeling could be induced in a human-rights activist during rallies surrounded by their peers, or a musician who allows past artists to influence and inspire their own work.
“[W]e now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality. The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realisation that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account…The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual’s purpose merges with the universal flow.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008: 239-240)
To learn more about flow I’d recommend reading the book Flow; the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Or for an audio description by the man himself, check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk below:
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2008. Flow; the Psychology of Optimal Experience, First Harper Perennial Modern Classics Edition.