What I learned about the concept of flow

The clock struck 11 am. It was a cool morning, where the clouds were dancing to the tunes of thunder and the trees were enjoying a bath. And I, was numbed by the whole view. Alas, it was the best time to pick up a pen or rather open a word doc. 

That is the last thing I remember.

The clock had traveled past 3 pm. I suddenly realized I was hungry and thirsty. However, a sort of calming happiness dwelled upon me. Somewhat like you feel after a successful attempt at meditation. And I simply loved it.

But, I was confused.

What just happened? Was it normal? Where was I?

I got an answer to this puzzle when I read about the concept called ‘flow’.

I never thought of going deeper unless I read the book flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Being an Indian I was accustomed to the idea of nirvana or salvation but isn’t that what the highly abled hermits achieve? Maintaining your consciousness to a level where it remains in harmony with the surroundings, such that you don’t feel negative emotions due to external factors?

Well, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory taught me, that you could try to reach there without giving up on a comfortable life. Neither become a hermit nor a slave of the distracting world, but lie somewhere in between, having a perfect balance.

Mihaly defines flow as-

“ a state of joy, creativity, and total involvement, in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence”

It is where you lose yourself in whatever task you do and feel one with the universe. 

Well, that much is understandable, but what amazed me was the idea that this experience of flow defines the level of happiness in our life. It is much more than having flow at work!

To explain further, let me tell you the 10 lessons that I found revealing:

Consciousness is like a chameleon

Here, Mihaly debunked something that I truly believed in- the gut or the inner instinct isn’t necessarily your soul, it can be an output of social and biological needs. Your task remains to differentiate between whatever you actually feel/want and what sociological/biological factors influence. 

If you let your consciousness run amok, you might be led astray. 

So, you need to get hold of your consciousness, by paying attention. To focus on what matters and not what your body or society calls for. That is when you listen to the ego and not ID (biological factors) and superego (sociological factors).

Attention is the key

Once you are in control of your consciousness you know where to divert your energy and attention. 

While we use our tiny brain to process dinosaurs of data every single moment, it is impossible to process and retain much of it. However, what we do retain that data where we focused and held our attention to. Thereby letting meaningless distractions go to the bin. Hence, we need to learn to differentiate between what comes in and what goes in the bin, that alone can determine how peaceful our life is. 

If the bin comes in, victory goes out

Remember the time when you were worried about your promotion and burned the dish you usually prepare in a breeze? That is a fine example of how negative feelings-worries, fear, distract you and disable you to achieve the task at hand. That is when the psychic entropy(inner disorder) sets in and you are left crumbled with the weight of your emotions since you gave those negative thoughts maximum attention.

Complexity leads to growth

You must have been familiar with the fact that challenges lead to the growth of an individual. No, it’s not a plain motivational idea but has scientific reasons behind it. Our mind is designed in a way that it needs a constant dose of challenges, problems, hurdles. When you overcome those hurdles, it releases happy hormones like dopamine and you feel blessed. Often you must have seen people you often call ‘boring’; because they play safe; are more often than not disgruntled with life. That is because they lack complexity and stink in a stagnant personality.

Achieving flow is not a cakewalk

Overcoming a challenge like breaking your record at the gym or finishing a complex book often gives you a feeling of being a winner. Whenever you focus on a challenge with full attention, your mind indulges in it so well that you experience a flow state of mind where you stay until you have accomplished the task. After which you feel fulfilled. But for that to happen you need a task that aligns to your goals and skills (such that no negative energy disrupts it) and give it your full attention.

You don’t need coffee, but a constant dose of flow

Recreating every day to align yourself to a challenge and accomplishing it with efforts and attention, makes your self-confidence soar. You crave dopamine and indulge more in challenges that make you feel happy upon overcoming them. A happy state of mind, a self that stays boosted with accomplishment leads to a harmonious life altogether.

Pleasure and enjoyment have different souls

That might be the first time you read that. But it’s true. To attain pleasure your biological and sociological needs must be met. For example: while watching tv or eating a favorite food. But for enjoyment to happen, you need to go a step further and ‘invest yourself’ in the activity. For example: playing a game or taking part in fruitful discussions. In these activities, you invest your skills, often overcoming a challenge or finding something new to add to your psyche. You might lose your sense of self and thereby experience flow while enjoying but not while experiencing pleasure. 

But sometimes we don’t enjoy an activity that we otherwise do. That is because enjoyment occurs at the perfect intersection of one’s skills and the challenge at hand.

A challenge must lie between anxiety and boredom (copyright of the author)

If the challenge is too hard, you feel anxious and don’t enjoy it, while if the challenge is too light, you feel bored. So aligning the level of your abilities is necessary.

Leisure is a ghost of happiness

We all could agree on one thing, Friday being the most impatient working day. That is because we are waiting for our beloved ‘weekend’ where we are free to experience pleasure through leisure. Ironically, Mihaly’s study found that when people are involved in pleasure activities, they actually ‘feel’ bored, often sad (Okay, that might not be the 100% true, but a significant portion of the data pointed towards this fact).

On the other hand, when people are working, they feel happy now and then. They are always involved in completing a task, overcoming challenges and thus experiencing growth. But while taking pleasure; for instance in watching tv; we behave as passive receivers and hence don’t play an active role in our life. Most of the time happiness stems from circumstances under our control, where we are the main player!

More often, we waste our precious time while being involved in passive leisure. The author recommends using this time to perform your favorite activity. You might want to give your plants a visit, or pick that canvas up again! That is when your mind sends happy signals again.

Shed your human garment and enter the universe

We might assume that we are one amongst the many on this planet. We have to fend for ourselves and blah blah. It is this constant concentration on our self, the “consciousness of the self” that makes it impossible for us to excel. We forget that we are connected to the universe.

It is with the loss of this ‘sense of self’ during flow activities that make us accomplish the task so perfectly.

Our self is somewhat suspended, we merely become an agent in this huge setting, where we contribute to a task/work/skill/activity while merging ourselves with the cosmos. It is the feeling we often refer to as transcendence.

Be as light as air  

The word autotelic comes from the Greek word auto (Self) and telos (goal). It means that whenever we do a task for the reward inherent in doing it and not for an outward benefit, we achieve a greater result. For instance, whenever you are conscious that you should win the game, playing becomes anxiety-ridden and you often lose. That is because you focus more on the goal, more on your image, and less on the task. Remember our previous discussion on attention?

It also matters how you pick small bites in everyday life, give it your full attention and make the best of the circumstances. That is somewhat living with the world, and away from your conscious self. That is working for a greater good, for the joy in doing it, and not for some external output. This might mean, having a hearty talk with an individual while you stand in a long queue.

In short, finding hidden meaningful goals that make everyday life worth living. This is when you achieve an autotelic personality. You become someone who doesn’t need external factors to drive your consciousness because you are the sole driver.  

This all might seem hard to understand, but it’s not. 

So what is the crux? 

How to achieve a flow state of mind (copyright of the author)

Just keep your mind and heart in the right place, invest your skills in everyday challenges, learn to nourish an undistracted mind by limiting your attention to important tasks, immerse yourself in whatever task you choose, have a rendezvous with the worldly muse, come out victorious and bear the effects of happy hormones and a life of harmony.

If you think this book is worthy of your attention, you can find it on Amazon