Most of us would probably like more money, more free time, and fewer problems. However, research says these aren’t necessarily the paths to happiness. Instead, studies have found that challenges can be greatly beneficial and it is how we interpret everyday experiences, rather than circumstances themselves, that has a direct impact on our self-perceptions, our sense of purpose, and how much we enjoy our lives. Fortunately, it is possible to learn some control of our consciousness so we can channel our thoughts and feelings in patterns that will benefit us. One of the best ways to do this is to immerse ourselves in the optimal experience of “flow.” This state/experience is likely to bring satisfaction, allow us to help others more, and improve the quality of our lives.
What is Flow?
Flow is a mental state that requires action and awareness. It occurs when the challenge of a task is in balance with our skills – that is, when it’s neither too easy (which brings boredom) nor too difficult (which triggers anxiety) and helps us develop as a person. During flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that time gets distorted, we aren’t distracted by irrelevant thoughts, and we have such purpose and intention that nothing else seems to matter. We tend to “lose ourselves” in optimal experience because our consciousness is channeled and engaged. When we are finished with the task, we have a sense of satisfaction, maybe even exhilaration.
How Does Flow Happen?
Flow might sound like a rare and idealistic state, but it doesn’t have to be. It is possible to learn to be in flow and find joy in whatever comes into our daily life, even in difficult circumstances. Those who succeed in doing so follow this blueprint:
Pay attention to details of the environment and situation to find hidden opportunities for action that go well with personal qualities, skills, and strengths.
Set goals appropriate to skill level and situation.
Use internal and external feedback to monitor progress.
Stay focused and adjust the approach to challenges as needed.
Increase complexity of challenges as goals are reached to prevent boredom.
You need both opportunities and skills, as well as the ability to control your consciousness to make use of them. Self-consciousness (worrying about what other people think) and self-centeredness get in the way of this process, as can extreme environmental and social conditions.
When Can Flow Happen?
Some activities seem designed for flow, but the optimal experience of flow can be achieved in almost every aspect of our lives. For example:
1. The Body:
One of the best ways to start improving quality of life and combat depression, boredom, and unhappiness, is learning to control the body and its senses. Tune into your senses, pay attention to all that your body experiences and does, and get creative. As you immerse yourself in the moment and set goals that challenge and motivate you, flow can be experienced in sports, fitness, dance, yoga, martial arts, or in simple tasks such as eating.
The mind is normally chaotic, making random patterns before settling on a painful or disturbing thought. Thus, it’s helpful to have specific information to focus on. Activities such as watching TV will give you a steady stream of information to distract you from your problems, but it’s more beneficial to have mental habits that give you control and induce flow. These might include doing or creating puzzles or riddles; reading, listening to, or writing stories or poetry; and exploring philosophy, science, music, or history. Find something that interests you and engages your mind, and aim for lifelong learning.
Even the most mundane or demanding job can be an opportunity for flow as you find ways to apply your strengths and develop skills as you look at your tasks and environment from different angles, set personal goals, and find strategies that help you be motivated rather than overwhelmed or bored. Focus on what is in your control rather than what is not. Counter to what we might think, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time because the conditions for flow are more readily available.
Optimal experience can be part of relationships with family, friends, and our community. Having a common purpose and open channels of communication, finding new challenges, and investing attention helps induce flow in even routine aspects of family life and relationships. Friendships can provide opportunities to develop expressive skills and feel into touch with our real selves. It is with friends that we often experience excitement, adventure, and discovery. Getting involved in a cause for good and interacting with members of our community beyond family and friends can also bring optimal experience.
Try filling your time rather than killing it by engaging in activities that require focus, increase skills, and develop “self.” Doing so can help you cope with stress, have a healthy relationship with your environment and others, find helpful solutions, and grow in confidence and self-assurance. Pick one aspect of your life in which you’d like to try pursuing optimal experience and go from there. Chances are, over time you’ll be enjoying the sense of purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction that comes from living with the mental state of flow.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.