I’ve read lots about the concept of flow before I even read this book by Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘chick-sent-me-high’), who first coined the term ‘flow’. I thought why ready this book, when I’ve already read about this idea in other books, but as is often the case, even though lots of people can talk about the same thing you can learn something new from all of them because they all present a different way of seeing it.
Obviously flow is a state of being known to mankind since the dawn of time, but Csikszentmihalyi measured it and named it and the term is now used in modern psychology books. Flow is a state which happens to us when we are dealing with a situation which is highly challenging and requires high skill from us. This makes us focus all our energy on the task at hand and time flies by, hours feel like minutes, we become completely engrossed in the activity. Everyone finds flow in something else. As I have written before I find my flow in writing or in rowing for example, where my focus is 100% – these are challenging activities and they require my highest skills. If the activity is too challenging and we don’t have the skills this is not flow, because instead of motivating us it causes anxiety as we feel unable to cope with the challenge at hand due to lack of skills and vice versa if it’s not challenging enough and does not require our highest skills it becomes boring, so we need to keep adapting our challenges to meet the new levels of our developing abilities.
What stuck in my mind from this book – are a few things, and here are the ones I found most interesting.
Free time has to be planned as much as you’d plan your work
Yes that is new to me, it makes sense when you think about it, but seeing it written out in front of me made me realise – it’s true. Your free time has to be planned out with ideally activities that induce flow within you and that are working towards long term plans or goals you have. Spending free time just doing nothing will make us bored and with no goal we will start to experience restlessness, anxiety and possibly even depression.
It’s interesting for example that people report experiencing flow more often at work than they do at home, but if you’d ask them then they’d still say that they prefer not to work, because free time is seen as generally more desirable.
TV is bad for you
TV is something that in recent years I’ve become to really dislike, because I feel like it hypnotises you and you don’t even want to watch it but you keep watching senseless programmes for entertainment. Some people have it on all the time as background noise even though they’re not watching it. I don’t watch TV and don’t even have one. Csikszentmihalyi’s research confirms what I’ve felt , that people who watch more TV are less likely to experience flow, therefore their quality of life suffers, because you cannot experience flow through passive entertainment. Instead people who read more, learn new things and study more are more likely to experience flow and have fuller lives.
A good relationship with friends, partners and family, depends on having certain goals in common. If you don’t have goals you want to achieve together you will less likely experience flow together. For example often successful couples are passionate about something that they share together, like a sport or a hobby.
According to Csikszentmihalyi naturally people don’t like being alone and always want to be with someone and when they are alone they feel anxious and nervous. I felt this is strange, because perhaps as I grew up as an only child I like to be alone and even need to be alone at least once a day for an hour or two. But I know some people who literally cannot stand to be alone. Csikszentmihalyi says that if you don’t like being alone you should learn to like it or at least tolerate it because usually people experience flow when they are focusing or studying or generally doing something for which they need to be alone to concentrate. As expected, the happy medium is that there should be a balance between being alone and being with people and either extreme of being alone all the time or being with people all the time is bad for one’s development.
Friends vs family
According to research we enjoy spending more time with friends than we do with family. I guess this is because we choose our friends but we don’t choose our family, unless you’re lucky enough that your family are also your best friends.
Csikszentmihalyi says that now relationships need work . We put effort into our jobs but when we come home we feel we can somehow switch off, and just relax and not put any effort into our relationships, but this is why they often break because people take them for granted. In the past you didn’t have to worry about working on your marriage for example, because divorce wasn’t an option, but now people only stay together if they want to.
Csikszentmihalyi also points out, which I’ve felt to be the case, that today’s modern environment is not conductive to sustaining long lasting friendships because people move around all the time. I myself find it hard to deal with that a lot of my friends have moved far away and it’s very hard for me to see them and keep in touch. Whereas for example my father who has grown up in the same village and lives there even now when he’s retired still sees the same friends he went to school with and grew up with. Luckily as Csikszentmihalyi points out, we make up for this a bit by choosing our partners and spouses for love and because they are also our friends, whereas in the past marriage was seen as a practical union and friendship or love was not the norm.
It’s sad Csikszentmihalyi writes that some people go through life without experiencing flow at all, and therefore their lives become devoid of joy and real meaning. So the advice is do more of the things that give you a flow experience, try new things, get into new things, keep learning, keep challenging yourself and plan your free time wisely instead of frittering it away by watching TV or reading trashy novels or generally wasting time.
Loving your fate
There are some things that you will simply have to do that you don’t like doing. You can either accept this and choose to be happy doing this, by for example trying to make a game out of how fast and how efficiently you can complete a task for example, or you can grumble while you do the disliked task and make it harder on yourself, but either way you’ll still have to do it.
By paying attention to what you do in your work for example, even though it might be boring, can help you find ways how to do your work quicker, find more efficient ways to getting things done, and perhaps you might even discover something new like when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin as he noticed that unwashed and mouldy bowls had less bacteria in them. When a problem comes up in life and at work, take it as a challenge and try and think of the best way to solve it before you go and ask someone for help, or at least try to already have a suggestion of how it could be solved if you do ask for help.
Good luck with finding the things that give you flow and finding new passions that constantly challenge you and develop your skills, it makes life worth living. I for one will try and plan my free time more wisely in the New Year and aim to problem solve more as well as love my fate more than I do.
Wishing you all complete happiness in the New Year, may it be full of amazing and positive states of being and experiences.