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Wealth, status, and power have become in our culture all too powerful symbols of happiness. And we assume that if only we could acquire some of those same symbols, we would be much happier.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You are totally immersed in reading your epic novel. Your coffee has gone cold. It is no longer the morning, as you continue to wile away the hours of the afternoon. You are so absorbed in the story, that you are lost to the real world.
You’re playing badminton against your opponent. Strategy and focus are required to play at peak performance. The shuttle is smashed back and forth. You have no idea how long this game has been going on for, and you stay in the moment with the single-handed goal of winning. Every thought disappears and you don’t notice time flying by. The game is going well. This is natural for you.
These are examples of Flow State, a term coined by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He described Flow as:
‘Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’
In his Ted Talk, Csikszentmihalyi asks, ‘what makes us really happy?’, and he answers this question by referring to the research done on the topic that money can’t buy happiness. Individuals who achieve the state of flow, rather, it’s achieving a state of flow in pleasurable activities that is an important component of happiness.
He asks, ‘where in our everyday lives do we feel really happy?’ By studying creative people, such as artists and scientists, he found out why these people did what they did, when they didn’t expect fame or fortune. They did it for the pleasure of the task at hand, for the focus, and fulfilment that it brought them.
The ecstasy found from engaging in activities that are immensely enjoyed, where the sense of time could be lost, brings about this ‘state of flow’. Csikszentmihalyi found that the people he interviewed achieved optimal states of performance when they were totally engaged with their work, flowing out of them with ease.
What Does It Mean to Be in A State of Flow?
Csikszentmihalyi sums up how it feels to be in a State of Flow at 14 mins, on his slide, ‘how does it feel to be in a state of flow’? These are the exact seven components Csikszentmihalyi describes as making up the feeling of Flow.
- Completely involved in what you’re doing - focused, concentrated
- A sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
- Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
- Knowing that the activity it doable - that our skills are adequate to the task
- A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
- Timelessness - thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes
- Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces flow becomes its own reward
Flow is what people mean when they say they are ‘in the zone’ and forgetting themselves. The concept of Flow is that you are present in the moment. Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle wrote his book called ‘The Power of Now’ on this very concept, that spiritual enlightenment can be achieved through the power of being in the present.
The power of now can only be realised now. It requires no time and effort. Effort means you’re trying hard to get somewhere, and so you are not present, welcoming this moment as it is. - Eckhart Tolle
But how can we enter the State of Flow? You’ve guessed what’s next…
How to Enter Your Flow State
So after all of this, is it really possible to achieve this elusive state? It might be easier to achieve than you think, but it does take dedication and practice.
- Applying Flow to your work takes choosing work you truly love. It’s hard to lose yourself in the joy of a task if you don’t have passion for it. You will be very far from Flow here. Instead, you will be unproductive, and work will be slow and painful. Help your chances of Flow: choose work that brings you passion and joy.
- The task cannot be too easy or too hard. Your skill level has to match the challenge, so that the task is difficult, but achievable. It should be difficult enough to require your undivided focus and concentration, but not too difficult that it becomes frustrating and anxiety-inducing. Find tasks of the appropriate level of difficulty. It might take some trial and error to do this.
- We all know our vices and what distracts us. Phones that constantly buzz and an untidy desk might will not help with focus. Eliminate all possible distractions. This means turning off any music, email or phone notifications (push the boat out and turn your phone off), and make your workspace nice and tidy. You know what they say: a clear space is a clear mind.
- By finding the time of day that you personally focus the most, your chances of Flow will increase. Find your moments of optimal concentration. Then you can use these moments to your advantage with the intention of focus. This might be early in the morning when you first wake up, or maybe you focus better at night. Perhaps getting to work an hour earlier to use that time wisely before the office becomes busier would help your Flow.
- Try to appreciate Flow. This might be hard when Flow is in full swing, but embracing the enjoyment out of the experience can really enhance your experience of Flow, making those feelings of ecstasy and fulfilment even stronger.
- It might take a while to work out which factors need to be adjusted to make Flow happen. Practice and patience are key. Finding out what works and doesn’t work for you over time will enable you to work towards Flow. It will be worthwhile in the end.
So, we have established here that the State of Flow can be an essential component of happiness. We can learn from the artists, athletes and scientists who have achieved this state and reaped a lot of meaningful enjoyment out of it. We are more in control of our own happiness than we think.
Do you have any stories of Flow? Will you be trying any of these techniques to manufacture more fulfilment, ecstasy, and overall satisfaction in your life?
Written By Jess Burman