Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The State of Happiness

Imagine a typical Monday morning. You get to office to continue working on an unfinished problem set. You commute to your workplace, do your chit-chat with your colleagues and sip your coffee slowly. Finally, when you run out of excuses to procrastinate, you get to your desk to continue working on stuff you left open on your computer screen Friday evening. It is one of those days; no matter what you do, you can’t concentrate. You are reluctant and stuck. This isn’t working, you say.

Out of desperation you surf the internet, scrolling up and down. You revisit the problem set whenever the internet bores you and all of sudden … it hits you!

You figure out what’s wrong with your solution. You purge what you have and start fresh. For the next couple of hours, you are hooked. You decline all the requests from your office buddies for coffee breaks. You lose the grasp of time. By the time you check out your watch, it’s been 4 hours. You missed a couple of phone calls and have several unread emails. It’s already time for lunch. Before you head out, you look at your work and smile, feeling both proud and excited. You have accomplished something you couldn’t do the entire last week.

Sounds familiar?

What is Flow

Most of us at one point of time have experienced what the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. It is a highly focused mental state — the kind of experience in which you get so absorbed that you lose track of time. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

Csikszentmihalyi first documented his theory back in 1970s through an experiment. His goal was to find a unified theory for happiness — something that people do regardless of their profession or social status for which they feel happy and accomplished.

He had the participants of his experiment carry an alarm and a notepad for a week. The alarm was programmed to go off at random times during the day and every time it did, the participants had to write down what they were doing and describe how they felt about it. He then posed the following question reviewing all the entries:

Is there something all these people do that they find meaningful? and if so, what is it?

In asking this question, Csikszentmihalyi made an implicit assumption that although people may differ in what they consider an achievement depending on their background, there must be something common they all find meaningful.

Interestingly, he found out that people are generally feeling the happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete engagement with the activity at hand. That is when the time in your universe slows down but it seems to speed up outside. You are so absorbed and mindful that you don’t have any leftover attentional capacity on anything else — even measuring your own performance.

Flow State

Csikszentmihalyi believed that the flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing.

In his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi adds that in order to achieve such state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. In fact, flow happens in the sweet spot between anxiety and boredom.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi

This idea is one of the basis of modern people management, specifically in motivation and performance aspects. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur since both skill level and challenge level must match.

In other words, when one is put in a situation that requires skills just above what one already has, that is when flow happens and one possibly flourishes.

Flow and Happiness

There are a couple of reasons why the flow has direct links with our happiness. To start with, you simply get enjoyment from the moment when you are in flow working on a task and later you have the sense of hubristic pride. That in turn boosts your self-esteem and happiness.

If you experience enough sessions of flow, you eventually gain mastery in the skills you practice. We humans are hard-wired to favor mastery and self-improvement. This was needed for our survival because those who were faster, healthier and smarter had access to more resources and had a better chance of survival. Therefore, the sense of improvement you get with flow also hikes your happiness.

In addition, people are inspired by seeing others in flow. The flow enhances not only our own happiness levels but of others which is why it is considered a sustainable source of happiness.


Thank you for reading this far. I would like to finish this blog with a funny story about Sir Isaac Newton on a related topic:

… One morning Newton was working very hard, and did not leave his room to go and have breakfast with the family. The housekeeper, however, sent one of the maids into his study with an egg and a saucepan of water. The maid had been told to boil the egg and stay while he ate it but as he wished to be alone, Newton sent her away saying that he would cook it himself.
The maid left it near his watch on the table and telling him to let it boil for three min­utes left the room. She returned soon after and found Newton standing deep in thoughts, the egg in his hand, while his watch was boiling in the saucepan.
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