Have you ever noticed the phenomenon when you’re wrapped up in something you love and time seems to fly by? Maybe you experience this when you’re playing a favorite instrument, reading a book, or solving a problem at work. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you’re likely experiencing what he calls a state of “spontaneous flow.”
What is flow?
Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive research on this concept of flow, defining it as a state of being where you get lost in the task you have in front of you. Typically it is a place where you have both a great level of skill and are performing a highly challenging task that uses that skill. You can recognize when you are in this state of flow by noticing when you feel like you are outside of yourself or completely absorbed in what you’re doing.
He studied creatives, business leaders, and athletes to explore the moments when these individuals tend to feel most productive or highly motivated in their work. Here is his TED talk outlining his research results:
How can I achieve flow?
When Csikszentmihalyi claims that flow provides the greatest source of happiness, it makes sense that you’d want to know how to get there. Identify where you already have some natural talent. Maybe you’re a skilled basketball player, you’ve enjoyed playing the piano since you were young, or you have a knack for closing on a sale at work. Malcolm Gladwell, famous for his 10,000 hour rule, explains that in order to become an expert in an area (and to achieve flow), you must begin with some natural talent.
Once you’ve identified this area, you need to train and develop technique in it. As he mentions, if you’ve never played the violin a day in your life, you won’t be able to enter flow the first time you pick one up. Similar to Gladwell, Csikszentmihalyi suggests having 10 years of technical knowledge and immersion in your area of focus. This takes time, patience, and practice, but that will pay off into satisfying work. If you enjoy what you’re doing, the process of getting that skill will likely be enjoyable as well.
You can also grow into flow by paying better attention to the zones he mentions are closest to it: arousal and control. Moving from intellectual arousal to flow involves facing high levels of challenge that push you to learn new skills and grow beyond your preexisting knowledge. On the other side, when you achieve control through mastering a skill, you can increase your chances of entering flow by providing yourself with greater, more difficult challenges.
In his book Flow*, Csikszentmihalyi gives more practical feedback on how to achieve this flow in your life.
Why does flow matter for mental health?
We all want to experience greater peace, productivity, and happiness. Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates how research does not support the stereotypical belief that money or material things will increase happiness. Finding a purpose and a passion are what ultimately lead to happiness, both of which are involved in the experience of flow.
Achieving a state of flow can break you out of your mundane, everyday routines and give you a new sense of power and purpose. It gets you in touch with your passions. It helps you to experience peace and serenity, where worries melt away and you can maintain focus on just this one area. It will help you to enjoy your work more, rather than experiencing stress.
If you struggle with addiction, you might find yourself getting locked into destructive patterns of behavior that consume your time and energy and leave you drained and exhausted. Choosing to engage in areas of positive flow both reduces the power of that addictive behavior and provides an intense experience in a positive direction that can replace this longing for a high from the addictive substance or behavior.
Where can you begin your focus to experience flow?
To get you started on this journey toward achieving a state of flow, ask yourself these questions: Where are the areas that you wish you could achieve this state of flow? Where have you experienced it before? What skills do you feel are most developed in you to reach this state? Which skills you desire to develop more? Where have you experienced a state of arousal or control and are looking to move into the zone of flow?
Are you tired of feeling purposeless, like you’re just getting through each day? Do you wish you didn’t feel so much like a zombie? Do you walk through life bored and just looking for something to keep you entertained, rather than truly enjoying your life? I understand how difficult it can be to find purpose and meaning in your life. At Restored Hope, I offer counseling in my Ann Arbor therapy office to help you move closer to this state of flow and out of that space of apathy and aimlessness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or email me to talk with me today.
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