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The Flow



Happiness is 'flow' - moments when time flies

by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

happinessflow_300x150Spending time immersed in effortless concentration and enjoyment, or 'flow', is vital for a happy and fulfilled life. But how do you make these happen?


There are many circumstances that can make you feel happy. But 'flow' is the state of involved enchantment you feel in moments when you are fully absorbed in an activity that has meaning to you, it might be playing sport, making a sculpture, taking photographs or playing a musical instrument.

When you are in flow to the point where you 'forget' yourself and lose track of time. In these moments, you feel strong, alert, unselfconscious and at the peak of your abilities.

These exceptional moments provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life. They create a different type of happiness, of your own making, that is truly fulfilling and ultimately helps you develop a stronger sense of who you really are.

The effortlessness enjoyment of the flow experience doesn't come without effort though. It comes after you focus your mind on particular types of behaviour. My research shows it's very rare for people to report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or listening to music. You need a mind that's willing to set challenges for itself.

Usually people experience flow while pursuing a goal, in the context of a set of rules. You are usually doing something where there is a sense of discovery, where you can concentrate deeply and where there is a sense of control. You get immediate feedback so you know you are doing it right. And your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, so you are neither anxious nor bored.

Sports are well-designed for this and athletes who achieve it talk about 'being in the zone'. But it can also occur when you are dancing, climbing a mountain, making a piece of furniture, playing with a baby, talking with a good friend, or involved in an artistic, intellectual or spiritual endeavour.

The best moments usually occur when your body or mind is stretched to its limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. It is almost always linked to situations where your personal skills are used to their utmost.

It happens surprisingly often at work and can happen even in a mundane job if you pay close attention to each step involved and then ask: Is his step necessary? Can this task be done better, faster, more efficiently? What extra steps could make my contribution more valuable?

What makes you happy?

But flow generally happens when you do your favourite activity – gardening, listening to music, bowling, cooking a good meal, for example.

The first step to achieving flow is to get in touch with yourself and find out what makes you happy. It's amazing how many people don't actually know. If it helps, keep a diary or at the end of your day reflect back on what you enjoyed, this can help you work out what influences your moods. Try to see if you can find a way to do that leisure activity in a way that will help you grow.

This serious playfulness makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time. To make the best use of free time, you need to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as you would to your job.

Your personal plan for flow

You can experience flow with pretty much everything you do, provided the relevant elements are present. Here's what you need to do:

  • Choose a task that's challenging, not too easy but not too hard. Note that if you're attempting a task you're not yet good at, you need to persist through an initial beginner stage and grow your abilities before flow can occur.
  • Set clear and realistic goals. These provide an easy means for measuring your progress. Also whenever you realise your goals, you'll feel a great sense of accomplishment.
  • The task must have clear and immediate feedback. If conditions change, you'll need to adjust your performance to maintain the flow state.
  • Identify your motivation. Why are you doing this? If you're not pursuing an activity to which you're naturally drawn, chances are you won't enjoy it and hence won't achieve a flow state.
  • Be proactive. It's so easy to put off tasks that take effort and time. Yet procrastination never feels good. Beat this tendency by reminding yourself that inhabiting a flow state feels so much better than endlessly vacillating.
  • Don't fret about your performance or try to force yourself into flow. Doing so will just make you anxious and self-conscious. Best not to have any expectations at all.
  • Cultivate an environment conducive to flow. This tends to be very personal. For example, maybe you like to write with music playing in the background because it induces a state of relaxed alertness. The point is, do whatever works for you.
  • Give yourself enough time. It takes at least 15 minutes to enter a flow state and then more time after that to truly lose yourself.
  • Minimise interruptions and distractions. Otherwise you won't be able to concentrate and get in the flow. Close the door, put your phone on silent and resolve to only respond to emergencies. Having said that, distractions tend to be less of a bother when you're in a state of flow.
  • Monitor your emotional state. If you're doing all of the above and finding flow just isn't happening, maybe it has something to do with your mental state. At the very least, you need to be feeling calm and awake if you hope to experience flow.
  • Regularly engage in tasks that encourage a flow state. Practice makes perfect.

This is an edited extract from the e-book Living in Flow – the secret of happiness (pdf) produced by the World Happiness Forum

It is important to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, hanging out the laundry, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if you approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.

One woman was able to achieve flow when ironing. She told me she tried to iron a shirt so that when she's finished, the shirt looks like new, like it's just come out of the box. But at the same time she tried to do it as fast as she could. She thought 'OK I can do it quickly, but I can also do it well at the same time.' And she got pleasure from that.

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment, that is long cherished, and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management and Founding Co-Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University, California, USA. He was in Australia recently to speak at the Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney. He spoke to Cathy Johnson.

Published 13/06/2014





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