Have you ever been so involved in an activity that time seemed to stand still? You know, those seemingly perfect moments where you were immersed fully in an enjoyable activity and felt energized and “in the zone ?” Such moments are fleeting, but most of us have experienced them. These seemingly perfect moments are like trying to grasp water. We all have had them, but most of us don’t know how to create them.
Such moments are referred to by Positive Psychology as “flow states.” They have been examined quite extensively by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, one of the best-known influences in the field of positive psychology. Csíkszentmihályi identified the concept of flow states while studying factors that create human happiness. His initial studies surprised him when he found that there was no positive correlation between wealth and happiness. He became curious about what made people happy. He found that people who were happy routinely engaged in activities that made profound positive changes in brain chemistry and led to states of ecstasy. These ecstatic states occurred in everyday life, sometimes planned, and sometimes part of the persons every day routine. He called these states “flow states” because at those moments a person feels to be outside of themselves, watching things happen, simply allowing things to “flow.”
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The key component of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, deep focus on the activity, and a loss of self-awareness. At that moment nothing is important or noticed except the activity, not even one’s self or one’s emotions.
Csikszentmihalyi says that there are seven key components to being in a flow state:
1. Complete involvement in the activity, focused and concentrated
2. A sense of complete ecstasy, being outside every day reality
3. Inner clarity, knowing what we are doing and what needs to be done
4. Knowing the activity is doable, that our skills are adequate for the task
5. A sense of serenity, there are no fears for the self. Ego is suspended
6. Timelessness, hours passed like minutes, full focus and attention is on the present
7. Intrinsic motivation, the activity that produces flow becomes its own reward
Csikszentmihalyi studied thousands of people who were able to attain flow. They ranged from adrenaline junkies who base jump, to surfers, extreme athletes, Buddhist monks, CEOs, video gamers, housewives, and every day people. Virtually everybody has activities that have the capacity to put them into flow states. His findings were that people who are happiest are those that get into flow state more frequently. The greater amount of flow in their life, the greater their sense of happiness. Money, power, and fame, Csikszentmihalyi feels, have little to do with true happiness.
Most positive psychologists,Csikszentmihalyi included, believe that we have certain setpoints for positivity. These tend to be biological, that is we are born with a tendency to reach a certain degree of happiness.Csikszentmihalyi believes that tapping into flow more regularly increases the setpoint and it elevates our quality of life.
Csikszentmihalyi admits that it is easy to recognize flow in athletics. Athletes are the easiest people to convince of the existence and benefits of flow, particularly those that are intrinsically motivated. Extreme athletes such as mountain climbers, skateboarders, and combat athletes are used to pushing the envelope regularly in getting into a state of flow. “Flow hackers,” as some call them tend to be intrinsically motivated. They have a need to get into flow state and could care less if they have an audience or get paid for it. Flow becomes the reward in itself. Video games also produce flow states for some. Again, flow becomes the reward.
At this point you may be asking yourself how you can attain a flow state.Csikszentmihalyi is adamant that all of us have activities that could create this. Think about it for a moment, what activities give you joy? Music, art, photography, cooking, there has to be something. It may even be something spiritual or related to your job. We all have something that can put us in a state of flow. Next time you have that feeling of being “in the zone’ take notice. That could be a feeling you can create more frequently.
Find what puts you in the zone and try to get there as often as possible. Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that this is a bigger factor in your state of happiness than money, or perhaps anything else. Find your flow and go with it!
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