Finding Flow

by Scott London

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent the better part of forty years studying the phenomenology of happiness. What makes life genuinely satisfying, he says, is the experience of “flow” — that state of optimal awareness in which our concentration is intently focused and we’re fully absorbed in what we’re doing. 

During flow experiences, our body, mind, and consciousness become ordered and harmoniously directed, feelings of indecision and anxiety disappear, and self-consciousness falls away. Athletes speak of this state as “being in the zone” and mystics sometimes liken it to being in a rapture.

Complex and challenging tasks, such as mountain-climbing, painting, playing an instrument, figure-skating, or solving a difficult business problem, are especially conducive to flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi. These activities engage, concentrate, and absorb the body and mind to such an extent that we lose our awareness of time.

In Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, which is perhaps the most concise summary of his research on happiness, Csikszentmihalyi says that flow tends to occur when our skills are fully activated in meeting a specific challenge.

Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between our ability to act, and the available opportunities for action, he says. “A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide flashes of intense living against this dull background.”

The concept of flow is an interesting and evocative idea, and it certainly has a good deal of explanatory power — which is much needed in psychology, a field that has traditionally spent far too much time focusing on distress and pathology. In developing this notion of flow, Csikszentmihalyi himself has created quite a name for himself (which is no mean feat given that his name is virtually unpronouncable).

A good deal of his success can be attributed to the way he has uncoupled “optimal experience” from the murky domain of religion and mystical experience and in the process given states of heightened consciousness a kind of academic respectability. This is a significant achievement. But does it go far enough? Probably not. By the standards of the contemplative traditions, especially those of Eastern philosophy, his exploration of optimal experience might be best described as, well, a prelude to a beginning.


Excerpt from Finding Flow:

It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on our inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand. If a rock climber takes time out to feel happy while negotiating a difficult move, he might fall to the bottom of the mountain. The surgeon can’t afford to feel happy during a demanding operation, or a musician while playing a challenging score. Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened, and then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of that experience — then, in retrospect, we are happy. But one can be happy without experiencing flow. We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, a warm sunshine, the contentment of a serene relationship. These are also moments to treasure, but this kind of happiness is very vulnerable and dependent on favorable external circumstances. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.


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