Reflections On: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
At the start of this year I published my objectives for 2017. One of my objectives is to blog about every book I read this year, as part of a conscious effort to spend more time reflecting upon the content I consume. Below is my analysis of book seven.
Flow is an exploration of our optimal experiences. Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “a state of consciousness during which people find genuine satisfaction.” In this book, Csikszentmihalyi unveils the characteristics of flow experiences and illustrates how we can consciously obtain flow.
“Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the “flow experience” is that the feeling it creates seems to be universal. Csikszentmihalyi discusses decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience depicted by interviews with people from all over the world, “from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds.” For such a broad spectrum of people, the similarities in the described experiences is quite remarkable.
Csikszentmihalyi explores seven conditions of every flow experience:
The first requirement of a flow experience is to be completely involved in what you’re doing. No multi-tasking. No daydreaming. Just absolute engagement with the task at hand.
“Only a very select range of information can be allowed into awareness.”
With intensified focus, you can achieve a sense of ecstasy, or extreme joy. Most feelings of ecstasy occur when the activity is goal-directed and bound by rules.
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary of boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
In a flow experience, your goals must be clear. You should know exactly what you need to do from one moment to the next. And because your goals are clear, your feedback will be immediate. You will know right away if what you’re doing is aligned with your goal.
“What makes this information valuable is the symbolic message it contains: that I have succeeded in my goal. Such knowledge creates order in consciousness, and strengthens the structure of the self.”
To achieve flow, you must be confident in your ability to complete the task at hand. You need to believe that what you’re doing is possible, however difficult it may be.
“What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.”
During normal everyday life, we are constantly interrupted with thoughts of worry and anxieties. But while in flow, you are able to forget all about the unpleasant aspects of life because the given activity demands so much of your attention.
“When you are really involved in creating something new, you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels, or your problems at home. You can’t even feel that you’re hungry or tired.”
While in flow, your sense of time seems to disappear completely. Hours can pass by in minutes and minutes can stretch out into hours. You’re only focus is on the present.
“The objective, external duration we measure with reference to outside events, like night and day, is rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the activity.”
7. Intrinsic Motivation
Unlike most activities we spend time doing, flow activities are self-contained. This means there is no expectation of some future benefit.
“What you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake. Whatever produces flow becomes it’s own reward.”
My own flow experiences are usually the result of spending hours of uninterrupted concentration on a design problem or new business idea. Though I constantly yearn for them, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had control over when these flow experiences occur. Csikszentmihalyi made me realize that, with a better understanding of what a flow experience consists of, I can make the conscious decision to enter flow whenever I please. This was probably my most radical takeaway from the book — this notion that I have complete access to extreme joy and a tangible sense of purpose.
“When a person is able to organize 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 more purposeful and enjoyable.”
I’d like to think this access we have to achieve flow is comparable to the access we have to control our thoughts or bodies through practices like meditation or yoga. And, just like anything in life, it’s going to take intent and practice. I know, I know, we all have way too much on our plates to justify adding anything else. But when the reward is increased self-confidence and a clearer sense of purpose, can we really afford not to invest in flow?
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