In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi explains we’re happiest when we’re in a state of concentration or complete absorption. He calls this state flow. You may have referred to this as being in the zone.
Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.
Csíkszentmihályi’s team interviewed a music composer, who described his state of flow when composing. “You’re in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the music just flows out of itself.”
Csíkszentmihályi describes what it feels like to experience flow:
1) Immersion – you’re 100% involved in what you’re doing
2) Ecstasy – you feel you’re operating outside of reality
3) Awareness – you know what needs doing and how well you’re doing it
4) Competence – you know the activity is doable
5) Serenity – your ego disappears and you experience peace
6) Timelessness – hours pass by in minutes
7) Intrinsic Motivation – what motivates flow becomes it’s own reward
So, how do you achieve flow?
Csíkszentmihályi explains that in order to achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur.
In the image below you can see where flow occurs according to Csíkszentmihályi’s studies. When you have low skill and the task is easy, you experience apathy. When you have low skill and the task is challenging, you experience anxiety. When the you have high skill and the task is easy, you experience relaxation. Only when you have high skill and the task is challenging do you experience flow.
Csíkszentmihályi also believes 10 years of technical immersion in a particular activity is required to achieve an optimal state of flow. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not. Most of us have been doing something technical for over 10 years. It may be gaming, writing, running, music, yoga, acting, climbing… anything really.
Know what makes you flow. It could be the one thing that boosts your happiness better than anything else.