Thursday, June 04, 2009

Reflections on "Flow"

I have almost finished reading the impactful book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, first published in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (traditional spelling). This text has been on my "to read" list for several years, as many other great books--especially those referring to utilizing your strengths and volumes on positive psychology--keep referring to it. And it certainly has not disappointed.

The author's (don't expect me to keep typing out his name) contention is that ultimately each of us is seeking happiness, and that such happiness is not something that just haphazardly happens to us but is a condition that is cultivated through how we approach the contents of our consciousness (defined by the author as "intentionally ordered information," things we see, think, feel and desire in our subjective experience of reality). We experience "flow" in those moments when we lose track of time and taste a recipe of exhilaration, "a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like."

These moments are what the writer has in mind when he uses the phrase "optimal experience." Typically, they occur when a person's body or mind is "stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen." They are activities in which we dare to risk failure, in which we exert ourselves mentally or physically with an attitude of learning or growth.

People who can make these moments happen "enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way." The author continues, "The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the course of everyday life."

Throughout the book, the author points out the numerous activities that certainly do not stretch us to our limits and, because of their popularity within our western lifestyle, often leave us in a state of non-flow. Watching television night after night. Viewing our work as drudgery and simply muddling through it. Making little effort in our familial relationships. Excessive use of alcohol or use of recreational drugs to escape from the contents of consciousness rather than facing them and tackling life's core challenges. In general, resigning to Thoreau's notion that most are resigned to lives of "quiet desperation."

The book, then, examines the process of achieving happiness through control over one's inner life--and yes, for those of you wondering, it does touch upon the role of prayer and meditation. There are full chapters with rich examples of how to approach any job with a flow-creating mindset; how to make relationships with parents, spouses, children and friends more enjoyable; and how to respond to stress and enjoy life despite adversity. Especially sticky are the anecdotes of people with various disabilities who have achieved incredible things.

In essence, this text demolishes anyone's incentive, for whatever reason, to remain stuck in victim mode. Those determined to taste optimal experience will do so, amid whatever conditions. The reference to concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl (author of Man's Search for Meaning) helps to erase any lingering doubt toward such a premise.

As I have been reading, it has been natural to consider the types of activities during which I recognize that sense of flow, when I am "in the zone." Certainly this occurs when I am in the midst of writing something and the words just seem to pour out in the right order and with an impact that delights me. But there are many other types of occasions: deep and/or humorous conversations with good friends or family, causing me to lose track of time; the hours I have spent playing volleyball or throwing a Frisbee in various seasons of life; an endorphin-releasing workout; seeing a powerful film; hearing a great speaker or preacher; visiting a cool vacation destination for the first time; reading a book that really resonates with me; and having creative breakthroughs at work while preparing a talk or coaching a client. These indeed are moments of authentic happiness for me, when I lose myself in an activity and do feel like I am shaping my response to consciousness rather than simply reacting to external conditions or stimuli.

To anyone reading this: what are your moments of flow, when you lose track of time because you are so immersed in the complex pleasure of an activity? And how can you transform more of your everyday experiences or tasks into these "optimal" experiences?


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