How to achieve “Flow” — or optimal experience

flowBy Jonathan Chevreau,

Financial Independence Hub

In a book on happiness we reviewed here recently, I came across a book called Flow, billed in the subtitle as “The psychology of optimal experience.”

This book, first published as a hardcover way back in 1990, became a New York Times bestseller and has spawned several followup titles elaborating on the concept of flow and creativity. The author’s name is not easily recalled: Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at California’s Drucker School of Management and also director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Drucker. (Incidentally, if you find the name unpronounceable and unmemorable, as I do, one of his books helpfully suggests the surname can be pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high.”)

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Flow and the author who coined the term.

I must say that I was a bit skeptical about the term at first: it seems a fairly nebulous if not obvious concept. Watch a jazz musician blissfully in the groove during a piece or any artist absorbed in creation and that’s the general idea: time seems to disappear and extraneous stimuli fade away as you focus on a task or art you are in the process of mastering. It can be a game like chess or (in my case) bridge; it could be dancing, mastering your golf swing or even a series of moves on the factory floor.

The author says he spent “decades of research” on the positive aspects of human experience, including joy, creativity and “the process of total involvement with life I call flow.”  He begins by looking at the nature of Happiness and how to achieve it through control over one’s inner life. He found that many people found the most enjoyable parts of their life to occur during periods they were struggling to overcome challenges.

Times flies when you’re flowing

After studying both ordinary people as well as accomplished athletes, artists and even surgeons,  Czikszentmihalyi concluded there were 8 major components to enjoyment: first, it usually occurs when confronting tasks that have a chance of being completed; you have to be able to concentrate on the task; the task has clear goals and provides immediate feedback; one acts with “a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life”; you can exercise a sense of control over the activity; concern for the self disappears and the sense of the duration of time is altered: “hours pass by in minutes; and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.”

Flow is as likely when working as during leisure time

What’s interesting about this concept is that it’s as apt to be experienced in the workplace as in leisure activities. And one place flow definitely does NOT generally appear is during passive activities like watching television:

“In fact, working people achieve the flow experience — deep concentration, high and balanced challenges and skills, a sense of control and satisfaction — about four times as often on their jobs, proportionately, as they do when they are watching television.”

The author notes that one of the ironic paradoxes of our time is “this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment.”

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this: a clue is that we’ve chosen to include this book review in the Encore Acts section as well. While this website is devoted to all aspects of financial independence, and ultimately winning freedom from the corporate gilded cage, a reading of Flow reveals that happiness may well be more likely to be experienced not in passive retirement from the workplace but in a congenial career or perhaps an Encore Career.

Work as Flow

One chapter, entitled Work as Flow, describes how some farmers in Alpine villages “seldom distinguish work from free time. It could be said that they work sixteen hours a day, but then it could also be argued that they never work.”

North American workers tend to view work as a negative and cherish being “free” on nights and weekends. But ironically, the author notes:

“ … jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it.”

The closing chapter tackles the “Making of Meaning,” and reinforces the notion that we all need purpose in our lives. Once we have secured our basic physical and social needs, we are freed to direct our energies beyond one’s self and immediate family to the community and ultimately the world. Some combination of activity and reflection will be necessary to find purpose and to put it into practice.

Other books about Flow by the same author

Here are some of the follow-on titles by Czikszentmihalyi (with red links to Amazon titles):

Creativity: The Pyschology of Discovery and Invention

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning

Flow and the Foundations of Positive Pyschology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi

One thought on “How to achieve “Flow” — or optimal experience

  1. We need more articles like this to serve as a source of self improvement. Having the ability to quiet our minds and stay in the moment versus wasting energy worrying about the past/future is key in the search of happiness.
    I experience a sense of flow whenever I go fishing. My mind empties and all my problems seem to disappear as I’m so focused on the act . Call it my Zen moment and actually catching a fish is just a bonus!

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