How can you calm your mind to reach a zone of happiness? This is the secret of musicians, artists, and painters who stay blissfully happy for days and months in their work. You can learn their method of creating a calm mind that stays immersed in an intense state of authentic happiness called “flow” or “zone.”
The Flow And The Ebb Of A Memory
I have a distant memory. In 2008, winters, I snipped a small pixelated picture from a local newspaper and stuck it to my clinic board. I layered it up with Scotch-tape so that the elements don’t pale it over the coming years. And it stayed there till a few years back, when we replaced the board. In the picture, a young Harvard teacher named Tal Ben-Shahar explained an x-y graph labelled skill level, task difficulty, anxiety, boredom and “flow.”
Tal Ben-Shahar got the world’s attention when in 20017 his course PSY 1504 — Positive Psychology became the most popular course in Harvard catalog ever. 854 students enrolled in it. It was historical because it surpassed even the course on Introductory Economics, for which the university is famous for all over the world. The international media labelled this as “Happiness 101” and Tal Ben-Shahar became the popular face of Positive Psychology. Over the years, this course went on to attract 1400 students who searched for happiness.
That picture continued to enamor me over the years. It was many years later that I came to understand the scribbling there in white on black: The Flow Theory of Happiness.
A History Of Flow
As we know, flow wasn’t something exceptional to the modern humanity. Throughout histories and cultures were numerous mentions of this state of absolute absorption into the work at hand. For example, Michelangelo and Sistine chapel, Orpheus and his golden lyre, Arjuna and the eye of the fish.
No one invented a particular set of exercises that can make you enter the flow state. Flow always existed. The world has known that painters, sculptors, musicians, and many other artists oftentimes lose themselves so deep in their work that they forget eating, drinking and even sleeping.
In 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high) scientifically discovered, researched and brought the concept of flow into public limelight. The Hungarian-American psychology professor and his colleagues discovered flow — an optimal state of happiness these people were entering and working from — when they were asking themselves, “What makes these artists get lost in their work?”
The professor himself accepts this, in his own words, “To call it a ‘discovery’ is perhaps misleading, for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time. Yet the word is appropriate, because…it has not been described or theoretically explained by…psychology.”
The Flow Theory
In 1996, Wired asked him, “What do you mean by flow?”
To this, Czikszentmihalyi replied, flow is “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.”
A flow state erupts from focusing one’s attention to a task. But this will be a task that will challenge your skills, and carry clear goals and immediate feedback. All of us can get into the flow state by learning the way to concentrate and hold our attention. Once in flow state, you will be losing the consciousness of your self, while becoming one with the activity in your hand.
The flow is a state of immersion into a self-contained universe, whenever we get involved in an activity of deep interest.
The Flow State Of Happiness
Many people are unhappy because their minds are in a state of hyperstimulation trying to process a load of information from too many sources. Once we learn to focus more fixedly on one thing at one time, it creates an intense focused and a calm mind. This is entering the flow state. It brings us authentic happiness.
“Flow is highly correlated with happiness, both subjective and psychological well-being.” — Cziksentmihalyi, 1997.
Professor Csikszentmihalyi is often used to saying that people are happiest when they are in a “state of flow.” According to him, happiness is not a fixed state but a state that can be entered into as we learn to achieve flow in our lives. To define the importance of flow in our lives in relation to happiness, he says, “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.”
When we get into the flow state, our surroundings seem to blur, time appears to stall, and we lose our distractions while gaining an uncommon peace. Some suggest that those who invite frequent flow experiences into their lives tend to be happier and calmer. Also, people in flow find themselves more productive and less stressed. A flow experience is its own prize, and it is rare that you require any after-activity rewards.
Tasks and activities that lead to flow must find a balance in the task-difficulty and the skill-set levels. A flow state characterizes absolute immersion in the task till you complete it. Anxiety or ennui can restrict a steady state of flow. If you find the challenge too tough, you become anxious — and therefore, unhappy. On the flip side, if your skills square up rather too nice, you become bored — and therefore, unhappy.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, this “explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.”
He says, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
Searching For The Flow State
Csikszentmihalyi and Larson in the early 1970s found a method of research in which they asked the participants to stop at certain times during their day and record the current experience. This was the Experience Sampling Method, or ESM, (also called ‘daily diary method‘). The researchers used ESM for the first time to study flow and find out the activities that easily get people into flow states. During their studies, their team collected around a total of 70,000 pages from about 2,300 respondents.
He declared in an article in Psychology Today in 1997, that “the ESM has found that flow generally occurs when a person is doing his or her favorite activity – gardening, listening to music, bowling, and cooking a good meal. It also occurs when driving, talking to friends, and surprisingly often at work. Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.”
Find out how can you find flow in whatever you do.
Finding Flow At Work
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day. It usually has clear goals and rules of performance. It provides feedback either in the form of knowing that one has finished a job well done, in terms of measurable sales or through an evaluation by one’s supervisor. A job tends to encourage concentration and prevent distractions, and ideally, its difficulties match the worker’s skills.
“Nevertheless, if we had the chance most of us would like to work less. One reason is the historical disrepute of work, which each of us learn as we grow up.
“Yet we can’t blame family, society, or history if our work is meaningless, dull, or stressful. Admittedly, there are few options when we realize that our job is useless or actually harmful.”
Finding Flow At Play
On this, Csikszentmihalyi says, “Leisure time in our society is occupied by three major sorts of activities: media consumption, conversation, and active leisure–such as hobbies, making music, going to restaurants and movies, sports, and exercise. Not all of these free-time activities are the same in their potential for flow.
“Why would we spend four times more of our free time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good? Each of the flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be enjoyable. If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.”
Finding Flow At Socials
On ways to achieve flow in social interaction, the professor suggests, “A successful interaction involves finding some compatibility between our goals and those of the other person or persons, and becoming willing to invest attention in the other person’s goals. When these conditions are met, it is possible to experience the flow that comes from optimal interaction.”
Further, he says, “The same holds true for any other type of interaction. The secret of starting a good conversation is to find out what the other person’s goals are: What is he interested in at the moment? What is she involved in? What has he or she accomplished, or is trying to accomplish?”
Here is a short animation explaining the Flow theory:
As suggested by Nadia Goodman, an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, in Entrepreneur, the 4 tips to stay happy by getting into Flow are:
- Skill-specific task: Choose challenging activities that fit your skills.
- Goals map: Know the steps to reach your goals.
- Time allocation: Set aside distraction-free time.
- Instant feedback: Get feedback on your work.
In his relentless workmanship towards Flow, Csikszentmihalyi has authored over 120 articles or book chapters, and many books on the subject. Some of the resources on flow are:
- Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, 2003.
- Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, 2000.
- Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, 1997.
- Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 1996.
- Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – The History of Happiness
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