Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, talks about the psychology of happiness. He suggests that one of the first things you need to do on the road towards fulfilling and successful life and overcoming anxieties and stresses is to become independent from the social environment. Stop responding exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. This means you need to find rewards inside yourself.
Many people try to get a better work-life balance. They feel that they spend way too much time at work and too little at home. Work is seen as a necessary evil to give you the means to enjoy your leisure activities. Yet, according to the research by Csikszentmihalyi, when it comes to us enjoying the experience, the reality is very different from what we believe.
In one study, he and his team collected over 4,800 responses to answer a simple question of whether people have more instances of flow at work or in leisure activities. On average, people self-reported 44 flow activities a weak. The more time a person spends in the flow, the better the flow experience became. Surprisingly, participants reported being in the flow 54% of the time when at work, when discounting all the time being idle and gossiping around a watercooler. When it came to leisure activities, participants reported being in flow only 18% of the time.
Curiously enough, answers to the question of whether they wished to be doing something else indicated that people still didn’t want to be at work and preferred to be at home. This is pretty incredible as it means that we derive more satisfaction from our time at work than our time at home. Yet, we try to spend as little time at work as possible and as much as possible with leisure activities.
The explanation lies in us believing the cultural propaganda. When at work, we don’t believe our own senses that are telling us that when the challenge matches the skills, we actually enjoy the work we are doing. Instead, we focus on the cultural stereotype that work is supposed to be a hard, boring, and necessary evil. It is something that infringes on our freedom and therefore should be avoided as much as possible.
And why the abysmal results of the flow in leisure activities? The answer is in consuming rather than creating. You won’t get into flow by being passive and just consume the work done by other people. You need to be actively engaged and use your skills to overcome a challenge. Many people equate leisure with passivity. Instead of playing soccer, we sit in front of a TV and watch others play. Instead of playing a piano, we visit a theater and listen to others produce music. Instead of learning to paint, we go to an art gallery to admire the work of others. Passive entertainment doesn’t lead anywhere. It may provide a short-term distraction to mask the emptiness of our lives, but it doesn’t lead to a fulfilling and satisfying existence.
Flow, or optimal experience, happens when the information we are receiving and processing is all aligned with our immediate goal, and the psychic energy starts to flow effortlessly. When you are in the flow, you create order in your consciousness. Your attention is so focused that you ignore everything else around you. You live in the moment, and even the most tedious work can feel purposeful and enjoyable. Though at that moment, you don’t feel the enjoyment that comes after you finish and realize what was happening. Then you have the flood of satisfaction by both the achievement and the process that led to it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes several elements of enjoyment. When researching the topic, he found out that regardless of the activity, regardless of the cultural and social background of the person performing the activity, the enjoyment is always described the same way.
People who just enjoyed a specific activity describe it by at least one, but usually by more of the following. The enjoyable experience is when we have a chance to finish the task. We must be able to focus on the task. There are clear goals we need to accomplish. There is immediate feedback. When performing the task, we get our awareness disconnected from the worries of everyday life. We have a sense of control over the results. We are so drawn into the activity that we lose concern for the self. The sense of time gets altered, and it feels the time flies or slows down depending on the activity.
A challenging activity that requires skills – to experience the flow, you need to be doing a task that is neither too easy nor too difficult for you. It needs to provide you with the right amount of challenge where you can utilize your skills and strengths.
Clear goals and feedback – the task needs to be defined well enough, so it is clear what needs to be accomplished, and there needs to be immediate feedback, so you know how well you are doing and whether you have achieved the goal.
Focus on the task at hand – you need to be able to fully concentrate on the task and don’t get distracted by anything else. You need to stop worrying about the results and stressing out about whether you can do it or not.
Sense of having control over what we do – the task needs to be under your control. It is only up to you whether you finish it or not. If you don’t feel it is in your hands, then you won’t be able to truly enjoy it as you will keep waiting for input from others or worrying about the impact of the environment.
The loss of self-consciousness, merging of action and awareness – once you get in the flow, you merge yourself with the task. You stop being aware of what is going on around you. Your sense of self disappears, and you are the action. Once you finish the task and emerge from the flow, your sense of self then gets even more strengthened.
The altered sense of time – the time stops once you are in the flow. You lose your sense of what time it is and how long you are at the activity. When you finish, you may be surprised to learn that many hours passed by without you realizing it.
Optimal experience is not about the destination but the journey. It is an end in itself. Csikszentmihalyi talks about the autotelic experience. It comes from Greek words auto meaning self and telic meaning goal. It is an activity that is not done for some future benefit, but that is a reward in itself.
Most of our activities fall somewhere in the middle. We may start with an end in mind, and over time, as we are getting mastery of the activity, it becomes more autotelic. Consider something as mundane as running. When you decide to take on running, you have some clear benefits in mind. You expect to lose weight, get in shape, or win a marathon. The beginnings are often painful, and you keep your mind distracting as you find the process of running boring. You are just looking forward to getting it over with. As your physique gets better, you start enjoying it. At some point, you don’t go for a run to get in shape. You do it because you are looking toward the activity itself. You enjoy the feeling of running through the fields, the light breeze, being in nature, clearing up your mind. You enjoy the feeling that you can do it.
How to get into Flow
Flow activities sometimes happen by chance, but more often are carefully constructed. Just consider an art performance or a sports game. The participants practice endlessly, dress the part, there is a special place built for them where they can perform being a stadium or a theatre. Everything is done so they focus only on the one thing they are doing. Even the audience is there to cheer them, and they often get to an almost trance-like state while performing.
Csikszentmihalyi proposes that the flow happens in a cross-section where the challenge and skill match. This means that as you are getting better at the activity, your skill increases, you need a more significant challenge to keep in the flow. If the challenge is not big enough, it gets boring. On the other hand, if the challenge is too great, and the skill is not adequate, then instead of flow, you experience anxiety.
You may call it a progressive difficulty. The challenge needs to be increasing as your skills increase. That is why computer games are so addictive. With each new level, it gets harder and harder. But that is acceptable because the longer you play, your skill at the game also increases. You are constantly driven to improve and to show you can beat the next level. Being immersed in a computer game is an excellent example of how the flow works.
If the game is too easy, you get bored. If the game is too difficult, you get frustrated. In both cases, you drop it and do something else. Only when the game has progressive difficulty and allows you to improve gradually while facing a bigger challenge, you get hooked.
Flow at work
Unfortunately, this is not something that we promote in the workplace. Most companies shoot for efficiency. Efficiency means simplicity. We try to simplify the work as much as possible so automaton can do it. We are removing any challenge from work and then wonder why the employees get demotivated.
Only be setting goals that are just a bit beyond your current abilities, by having stretch goals that require you to be at the best of your game, by being challenged and growing you can experience flow at work. And flow leads to higher engagement and satisfaction with work.
To get the optimal experience, you need to design your environment in a way that allows you to focus on what you are doing without disruptions. You need to structure the activity to be able to receive real-time feedback. And you need to ensure that the challenge matches the skills you have just right. Then you have a chance to get into the altered state of consciousness when the time stops, and you experience a pure enjoyment of what you are doing.
What are your thoughts on the topic? How often do you experience flow at work and at home? What type of activities get you into a flow? Do you think that being able to regularly experience flow is important for a satisfying life?
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