Observations on Flow, part I

May 25, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Education, Fitness

Do you remember the last time you felt like this musician?

You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as if you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and 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.

We all know the feeling. We love it. It’s one of the great states of being. It comes through many ways — sports, hobbies, work, conversation, etc.

A psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, studied that state and called it flow, now established as a something to be studied and understood.

I figure most readers of this blog are already familiar with it. If so, and it was meaningful to you, tomorrow’s post will bring something new. Today’s is a brief primer with my thoughts.

If not, the web has many resources to learn more about it and him — for example Wikipedia on Flow (with many references within), Wikipedia on Csikszentmihalyi, and Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk (which included the musician’s quote above). His book, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, covers it thoroughly.

It’s a big part of the burgeoning field of positive psychology, of which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a founding member. Csikszentmihalyi lived through World War II, where he observed people’s changes in emotional well-being based on changes in material well-being and wondered more about what was going on. His research led him to study happiness, flow, meaning, and more. He published in peer-reviewed journals and became the head of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago.

The book listed eight conditions of the flow state, although Wikipedia listed ten, citing more recent works of his:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

More than just covering flow, his book puts the concept in the context of your life, what you want out of it, and how to get more of what you want. His book was my first introduction to thinking about life and improving my own. I’d read philosophy from Aristotle on in college, but it hadn’t resonated. Flow, the book, did.

One concept that resonated was that you could bring about more of the emotions you wanted — you weren’t just stuck with what you had. By better understanding the state of flow, you could bring more of it into your life. Since it’s such a wonderful state of being, doing so improves your life. You can find flow in many places, often where you’d least expect it, like work, where mainstream culture implies you shouldn’t be happy.

Another concept that resonated was that better understanding this state and yourself enabled you to bring it about more. “Know thyself” is tried and true advice to improve your life, but the book showed he studied this state scientifically — a more rigorous and repeatable approach to knowing than I would have thought useful for improving ones live.

A third concept that resonated was how he differentiated one’s emotional state from one’s material state. Again, he wasn’t stating anything new. Given the context he created and the concepts that you could do something about your life and the awareness of this state and happiness in general, this point focused me on what to improve if I wanted to improve my life. Stuff and status were only part of the picture, and only means to an end. The end was optimizing my emotional state through my behavior.

Tomorrow: two improvements on flow.

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3 responses on “Observations on Flow, part I

  1. Pingback: » Observations on Flow, part II: two improvements Joshua Spodek

  2. Pingback: » Willpower, part IV: when to use it Joshua Spodek

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