“The best moments in our lives are not the 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 discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called Flow. In this state they are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this “optimal experience” they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
Happiness does not simply happen. It must be prepared for and cultivated by each person, by setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for ones abilities. The experience of “flow” is strikingly reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s description of “great skill” achieved by Daoist sages such as carpenter P’ien and butcher Ting, who finds bliss in the art of chopping up ox carcasses by “going along with the Dao” of the ox. It is no coincidence that these blue-collar sages are situated on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They discover the Dao much more readily than Confucian scholars, who, according to Zhuangzi, are studying the “dregs of wisdom” in lifeless books and have lost touch with the world of concrete affairs.
Playing the piano, mountaineering, skiing, yoga or martial arts, working on a difficult project, or even a good conversation...in these cases your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you “forget yourself” and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now. This experience has long been the focus of research at the University of Chicago by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who gave the name "flow" to this state of absorption and effortless action.
Csikszentmihalyi is a pioneer of the scientific study of happiness. He was born in Hungary in 1934 and, like many of his contemporaries, he was touched by the Second World War in ways that deeply affected his life and later work. During his childhood, he was put in an Italian prison. It was here, amidst the misery and loss of family and friends during the war, that he had his first inkling of his seminal work in the area of flow and optimal experience. In an interview, he noted, “I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter. For hours I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals.”
During a trip to Switzerland, Csikszentmihalyi heard Carl Jung speak and this sparked an interest in psychology. As a fairly new discipline, there were few options in Europe for further study and so he traveled to the United States. As an artist that had dabbled in painting himself, he began his initial observations and studies on artists and creative types. He noted that the act of creating seemed at times more important than the finished work itself and he was fascinated by what he called the “flow” state, in which the person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement. He set his life’s work to scientifically identify the different elements involved in achieving such a state.
A psychology of optimal experience
The main thesis of his most popular book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is that happiness is not a fixed state but can be developed as we learn to achieve flow in our lives. The key aspect to flow is control: in the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces. As he writes:
The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen. The key to happiness consists in how we invest our psychic energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy literally “flows” in the direction of that goal, resulting in a re-ordering and harmony within consciousness.
Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” He identifies the following elements involved in achieving flow:
There are clear goals every step of the way.
There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
There is a balance between challenges and skills.
Action and awareness are merged.
Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
There is no worry of failure.
The sense of time becomes distorted.
The activity becomes an end in itself.
The essence of flow is the removal of the interference of the thinking mind. Absorption in a task indicates the absence of the self, and a merging of your awareness into the activity you are engaged in. The state of flow is applicable to relationships and situations; even times of adversity can transform into a challenge rather than a setback. There are people who have developed their flow to such an extent that they are able to translate every potential threat into an enjoyable challenge, and thereby maintain an inner tranquility as a continuous state of mind.
The autotelic self
He calls such a person an autotelic self, someone who “is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time.” Is such a state reserved for the few great human beings such as Socrates, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama? Csikszentmihalyi gives examples of ordinary people who are able to find delight in ordinary daily tasks. Having an autotelic personality, they create flow experiences even in the most barren environment, and hence live a fulfilling life, in spite of low salary and social status.
He describes five ways through which one is able to cultivate one’s self into an autotelic person:
1. Setting goals that have clear and immediate feedback
2. Becoming immersed in the particular activity
3. Paying attention to what is happening in the moment
4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience
5. Proportioning one’s skills to the challenge at hand
As these criteria indicate, flow is created by activities with a specific set of properties: they are challenging, require skill, have clear and immediate feedback (one knows whether one is doing the activity properly or not), and have well-defined success or failure metrics. Flow is a constant balancing act between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for the person’s skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low.
Flow as Control of Consciousness
While in flow, nearly all of the brain’s available inputs are devoted to one activity. This is why the perception of time changes, discomfort goes unnoticed, and stray negative thoughts don’t enter the mind. The brain is too busy focusing on one thing to keep track of all those other things. We see here an obvious link between flow and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or the kind of attention involved in meditation and yoga. The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetfull involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.
Flow can be achieved by many other activities that don’t require such elaborate commitments. One can achieve such a state while skiing, fishing, playing the guitar, cooking, reading, or even having a conversation and eating food. Flow is a matter of overcoming the “natural” state of the mind, which is one of psychic entropy: "Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos...when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic order of the mind reveals itself... Entropy is the normal state of consciousness--a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable."
Flow is not simply a matter of “letting go” or passively accepting things as they are. Television is primarily a way of distracting the brain from psychic entropy without creating a challenge and feedback loop that could lead to flow. The core message of Csikszentmihalyi's work, according to the New York Times review:
The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge.