"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. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Perhaps one of the most misguided aspects of modern thinking on happiness is the simplistic idea of it being a fixed, passively received endpoint, dependent on external circumstance - rather than it describing a fluid, ongoing state of engagement with the world that we proactively self-create.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "Life is a journey, not a destination". Indeed, a happy life is one experienced as an open journey. And our greatest sense of life satisfaction comes not from having reached an end-point destination wherein we can finally relax into a life of leisure, but a willingness and ability to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the aspects of this journey that make us feel most challenged, invigorated and valued.
In other words, happiness isn’t in the receiving, it’s in the doing. Happiness is not 'out there' - it’s 'in here', within us. It’s the cumulative result of how we choose to invest our attention, energy and imagination, day after day.
This is the essential line of thought that underpins the theory of ‘flow’, conceived by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Let’s take a closer look at Csikszentmihalyi’s theory, consider what a life lived 'in flow' looks like, and how that offers a more compelling alternative blueprint for long-term life satisfaction compared to other well-worn tropes on the pursuit of happiness.
What is flow?
In his best-selling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi describes 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."
I’m sure we’ve all experienced those moments of feeling 'in the zone' - prolonged stretches of uninterrupted concentration on a particular task or goal. During such spells, we experience the paradoxical sensation of time both having stood still internally in 'our world', and yet meanwhile having flown by externally in the real world. Our usual daily bombardment of incoming thoughts, bringing distraction, worry or stress, simply dissolve away. This is flow state. And for Csikszentmihalyi, regularly achieving flow is the key to ongoing life satisfaction.
Csikszentmihalyi identifies and breaks down the underlying conditions that induce flow state. Regardless of the specific task in question, flow is characterised by the following factors:
- The task is initiated with focussed attention and clear goals in mind.
- The task represents a healthy balance between challenge and skills.
- Immediate feedback loops are provided, along the way.
- Action and awareness begin to merge.
- Self-consciousness, distractions and anxiety disappear.
- Sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes an end in itself.
Perhaps the most publically acknowledged examples of flow come from those in public-facing areas, particularly the arts and professional sports. Whether it’s the writer’s account of hours passing in the blink of an eye during inspired sprints of productivity, or the musician who talks of complete loss of self during all-consuming performances, or the pro tennis player recounting stretches of spellbinding form in which their mental and physical processes were so effortlessly synchronised that they felt as if they were ‘in 'auto mode'.
But, of course, you don’t have to be a professional artist or an elite athlete to experience flow. Flow can be achieved in just about any activity that requires prolonged mental effort and in which our participation is enjoyed, literally, for the sake of it.
From hiking, to gardening, reading or even watching a particularly engrossing movie, flow basically describes the inherent sense of satisfaction, inner unity and achievement that arises from voluntarily immersing ourselves in activities that are enjoyable, yet also push ourselves to the limits of our skills and knowledge.
And it’s in this suggestion, that Csikszentmihalyi breaks away from many stereotypical notions and previously held assumptions about how happiness happens.
Happiness vs. leisure
According to Csikszentmihalyi, achieving flow - and therefore happiness - is greatly dependent on a high level of voluntary effort and challenge (and skills required to meet that challenge).
This is a pretty interesting thought, when weighed up against many wider stereotypes of happiness - namely, ones that are based on ambitions of a life filled with total relaxation and leisure.
You see, Csikszentmihalyi not only rejects the 'life of leisure' many of us day dream of (especially those locked into the daily nine to five grind) as a means of achieving true happiness. He goes one step further, by proposing that such a 'carefree' lifestyle is actually one of the surest paths to unhappiness.
For Csikszentmihalyi, the human brain is just like any other muscle in our body: avoiding ‘psychic entropy’ requires regular effort towards healthy goals. As he puts it: "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."
In other words, there’s a paradoxical irony contained in much of modern society’s yearning for leisure - in that, if or when it finally does arrive, if completely untempered by structured goals and healthy challenges, it leads to greater dissatisfaction than that of the ‘hard grind’ we so desperately sought to escape.
On the other hand, work - the right kind of work, the type which hits that sweet spot between challenge level vs. our individual capabilities and interests - emboldens, strengthens and energises us. In his own words, Csikszentmihalyi summarises:
"On the job people feel skilful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure."
We see this in action, in the enthusiastic entrepreneurs, the dogged sports professionals, the inspired designers, and the obsessive memorabilia collectors of this world. In other words, enthusiasts. These people have found certain aspects of life that make them feel in flow, and have diligently and passionately devoted themselves to them.
And conversely, we see the reverse in action in studies showing that lottery winners become no happier in the long-term, or that retirement increases the chances of depression by 40 per cent. In these cases, expectations of happiness have been overly attached to relaxation and leisure - which ultimately gives way to feelings of boredom, emptiness and lack of direction, which so often precipitate mental ill-health.
How to find and apply flow in our lives
Happiness is not a fixed state, but consists in how we choose to invest our mental energies. The most rewarding investments of that energy lie in tasks that represent a healthy level of personal enjoyment, challenge and difficulty. When we focus all of our attention on clear goals within these sorts of tasks, our energy literally 'flows' in the direction of that goal.
The resulting oneness we feel when immersed in these activities can be described as flow state. Regular occurrence of flow state in our lives is key to our overall levels of life satisfaction and happiness.
Unlike other notions of happiness based on leisure and relaxation, achieving flow state requires conscious effort and work toward challenging goals. The effortless feeling of flow that eventually ensues, is the implicit reward earned from the hard work we invested.
Basically, our lives are most 'in flow' and rewarding when we’re immersed in activities that we’re passionate about, which we’re intensely engaged with, and which require prolonged effort and hard work.
For some of us, our primary sources of flow may be tied to how we make a living. Whilst for many more of us, flow may arise from ongoing hobbies, 'side hustles' or creative passion projects.
And flow can be applied much more broadly, in our everyday relationships and situations. Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that we’re capable of developing flow to such an extent that we’re able to translate every potential threat into an enjoyable challenge, maintaining a continuous inner tranquillity, no matter what life throws our way.
Csikszentmihalyi calls such a person an 'autotelic self' - an individual who’s "never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time", and capable of finding delight in the most ordinary of daily tasks.
In this sense, one of the best ways to constantly achieve flow in all aspects of our lives is to cultivate a problem-solving mind-set. If we try to experience life as an ongoing set of intensely interesting problems to be solved (as Steve Jobs put it, to ‘be curious’), we’re more likely to be living in flow.
A great way to begin cultivating that mind-set is to regularly self-reflect on all aspects of both our work and personal life and answer the following types of questions:
- What activities or projects am I currently regularly engaged in, which make me feel 'in flow'?
- Am I giving myself enough space every day to engage in deep-concentration activities that allow me to get into flow - or more often than not, does my daily routine feel like a series of relentless distractions that steal time away from those things?
- Are my existing projects and day-to-day activities regularly pushing me to the limits of my knowledge and capabilities - or am I mostly coasting along, well within my comfort zone?
- When was the last time I experienced something completely new - a hobby, a job, a destination, or even a book, which forced me to grow in some way and consider fresh possibilities?
By honestly considering our answers to the above, we can more easily identify what changes we need to make and take control of where we invest our energy and time.
After all, a major prerequisite to achieving flow is control. Being in flow is in itself exercising control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces.
By taking back control over the daily circumstances that tend to control us, and designing our lifestyle accordingly - we’ll find our flow.