How to Find Flow

03/19/2021

What is "flow" and why does it matter? 

Flow or "flow experiences" was first researched by a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is described as an exceptional state of being where a person gets lost in time and experiences effortless action. In his book, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life Csikszentmihalyi sought to understand one question: what makes an excellent life? After years of research, he discovered that people who consistently experienced flow (not happiness) reported having the most satisfaction in life.

That is a pretty exciting discovery! I can improve the quality of my life by increasing experiences of flow? Count me in! It turns out, flow experiences require a few prerequisites. Flow tends to occur when there is a clear set of goals or rules, when a person is receiving immediate feedback, and when there is a challenge that they can skillfully overcome. The activity in itself doesn't particularly matter.

Pause for a moment and reflect on a time where you felt a sense of flow. Does it bring back any childhood memories of fearlessly playing outside or practicing an instrument? How about more recently? When was the last time you felt so immersed in an activity that you weren't ruminating on the past or future? So completely involved that you weren't a victim of your wandering mind? So enthralled that afterwards you felt a sense of accomplishment, calm, and joy? If you're like me, it's been awhile!

Csikszentmihalyi found that flow can only happen when there is a combination of attention and interest. "...we must learn to concentrate [our attention] more or less at will. This ability is related to interest by a feedback loop of mutual causation and reinforcement. If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it." That seems simple enough, but how do we begin to cultivate our attention "at will?"

Imagine this scenario.. It's late, the kids are finally in bed and you have the rare opportunity to wrap some holiday presents in peace. You decide to turn on your favorite show. Halfway through the show, you notice that you've wrapped 1/3 of the presents you intended to. You feel guilty, but you're already hooked! Afterwards you haphazardly wrap the gifts while thinking of your to do list for the next day and go to bed.

This scenario doesn't sound so terrible right? Actually the first half sounds quite enjoyable! But, we missed a prime flow opportunity. We believe that passive entertainment will make us happier, thus improving the quality of our life, but we actually just ignored a flow inducing experience. It had all of the components: "guidelines" on how to wrap a gift properly, immediate feedback if the package looks displeasing, and the challenge of completing an activity we normally don't do. We could have brought our full attention to this task. We could have had a full fledged flow experience! Damn you, Schitt's Creek!

As we focus our attention on being present this month, I challenge you to seek out the small, seemingly inconsequential, opportunities to find flow. 

Author: Ellen White, Founder
Author: Ellen White, Founder