The Theory of Flow - What Makes Life Worth Living?



How do we spend our days? What is it that makes us truly happy and content? How do we feel while working or hanging out with our friends? How come some people find fulfillment in their low paid jobs? Are you one of them?

We all need money to survive, but it shouldn't be the goal of our actions. More money means more comfort, but it doesn't affect our happiness. To be more specific, poverty and the lack of essential living resources create dissatisfaction. Still, an increase in material resources does not necessarily bring greater satisfaction. Defining who we really are, how we feel, what makes us happy and, how we spend our time, play the most crucial role in shaping our happiness.

To live it means to experience the world that surrounds us - through our work, thoughts, and feelings. We tend to run through our days, unaware of our emotions, continually trying to balance our obligations, which creates the feelings of restlessness and pressure. If we do find some free time, we usually spend it in passive boredom. We all have our roles within our families, community, and society, but sometimes we need to take a step back and think about what makes us genuinely happy and how we can make our lives better and more fulfilled. One way to achieve this is to put ourselves into the state of optimal experience or flow.

What is the state of flow?

Have you ever been immersed and focused on an activity so deeply that you didn't notice the time passing by? If you have, then you have experienced the state of flow.

Flow is the state of optimal experience or captivating infatuation by an activity. It is the mental state where you are most productive and creative, where you completely surrender to what you are currently doing. The Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, first introduced this term. He argued that entering the state of flow on a regular basis has a positive impact on your creativity and happiness. He explains flow as a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The concentration is so high that there's no attention left to think about problems or anything else.

During his research on happiness, Mihaly was especially fascinated by the strength of some people who experienced severe losses during World War II. Despite being left with almost nothing, these people still had a positive outlook on life. Mihaly found that, regardless of culture, status, gender, and age, everybody he interviewed felt the purest happiness during activities in which they experienced flow.

Our nervous system is not able to process more than 110 bits of information per second. Therefore, when a person engages in a particular activity and is in a state of absolute commitment, they don't have enough capacity to pay attention to their bodily sensations or think about their worries and responsibilities.

The activity itself is both the purpose and the reward. People are not driven by some external merits, like money or fame, that the activity might bring. Simply performing the activity, creates a feeling of satisfaction in an individual, and that feeling drives them.

The experience of flow - how does it feel?

One of the leading composers from the '70s described flow in these words: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.”

Composing music is an activity that requires the utmost concentration. The composer was so immersed in his creative work, that he felt as if he didn't exist. He felt detached from his body; he was able to switch off entirely and watch his hand do the work automatically. An accomplished figure skater confirmed the same feeling:

“It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean, everything went right, everything felt good . . . It’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, it’s like everything goes automatically without thinking . . . it’s like you are on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it, because it’s a part of it all.”

Since many people Mihaly interviewed described similar feelings when experiencing flow, he managed to summarize them into eight categories:

  1. You are entirely focused and concentrated on what you're doing;
  2. You are oriented towards the goal, and have immediate feedback;
  3. Your perception of time is distorted, you are focused on a present moment so much that you lose track of time;
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding, engaging in the activity is in itself a source of happiness;
  5. There is a balance between the challenge and your skills, you have the skills to complete the task successfully, but you keep trying to improve;
  6. You have a feeling of control over the activity;
  7. There is reduced attention to physical needs;
  8. The task at hand and your consciousness integrate; all your worries float away.

Mihaly described the state of flow as a very enjoyable experience, which is a key element of happiness. During the flow, you immerse yourself in what you love doing to such an extent that you cannot regret what you did yesterday or stress about what you have to do tomorrow.

How to reach the flow state?

The experience of flow is subjective and depends on the individual. Most often, artists, scientists, and athletes talk about these experiences. However, some people experience flow spontaneously, performing daily activities at work, playing chess, climbing a mountain, dancing, reading a book, and others. Anyone can achieve the state of flow. But what are the prerequisites for it?

“The best moments of our lives are not passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

Flow occurs when a person engages in an activity in which they have set goals they want to achieve, and when they have clear, immediate feedback on what they’re doing.

During his TED talk, Mihaly used the graph to illustrate that in order to reach the state of flow, there should be a certain balance between the challenges of the task and the level of skills we need to perform the task successfully. On the horizontal axis of the graph, we measure the level of difficulty or how challenging the task is, and on the vertical axis, we measure the skill level of the performer. The sweet spot is in the middle of the graph, where both the level of challenge and the level of skills are high enough to balance each other out. This is the point where we experience the flow. 

flow_Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Once we reach our goals, we should strive to set new ones to push our limits. If the challenges are too easy, we tend to get bored. On the other hand, if something is too challenging for our skill level, we can quickly get frustrated and tense.

Besides, when there are no challenges in our lives, and when we don't have good enough skills, we are likely to develop apathy. This is a mental state characterized by a complete lack of interest and passion. To wake up from apathy and reinforce the state of flow or ecstasy, we need to present ourselves with greater challenges and keep developing our skills to overcome them. The goal is to find what we love doing, and then keep getting better at it.

What are the benefits of flow?

We don't experience both happiness and flow simultaneously, because we are completely focused on what we're doing during the flow that we can't pay attention to how we feel. The feelings of content and fulfillment come after we have completed the activity. 

We can experience happiness in a wide variety of circumstances, while sun-bathing, drinking coffee, relaxing… However, such happiness depends on external factors - a beach can be a very happy place until it rains. The joy we experience through the state of flow is different. It is the product of ourselves. It leads to the shift in our consciousness contents and helps us grow and develop as human beings. 

Engaging in the activities that create flow significantly reduces the impact of adverse events that inevitably happen in our lives. They give us the strength to cope with all the negative emotions by channeling them through experiences of ecstasy and complete commitment to something we love. The more time we spend in the state of flow, the better the quality of our experiences - we become more creative, cheerful, and optimistic. 

Therefore, find - if you haven't already - activities that fulfill you, that make you feel alive and happy, that permeate your whole being, and remind you how beautiful the world really is. Find your passion and do it with your whole heart.

“When you do or think or feel something, do it with passion. Let it come from the heart. Put your heart and soul in it. And when you do, you will feel a river flowing sweetly through you and especially through your entire life. Life has much more meaning that way.” - Angie Karan 

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