• Robb G. Best

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Flow

The Declaration of Independence famously champions "the pursuit of happiness". For many, joy and personal fulfillment are one and the same.

So what is the secret to happiness? It's a question long pondered by history's great philosophical minds. Frequently, it's framed in terms of attempting to live a more spiritual life. But Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and education at University of Chicago, takes a different tack.

In his book, Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-sent-me-high"), suggests that the key to living a happy life is to habituate a process of personal challenge aimed at enhancing the intensity of experience. By that, he means that when pursuing any activity, we should practice the following four principles:

  1. Establish a clear and compatable set of goals

  2. Have a method for deriving immediate feedback to gauge your effectiveness

  3. Work at peak skill level to master the significant challenge you've chosen

  4. Completely focus your psychic energy on that given activity

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that when we witness a musician or athlete "in the zone," they're unconsciously practicing these principles. It's what happens in those transcendent moments where the rest of the world recedes and our focus is so intense that there is no room for any wayward psychic energy.

This is what Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow'. And although you are likely to feel a sense of joy afterward, in the moment you are too consumed in the experience to feel anything other than completeness.

So how did Csikszentmihalyi come to understand flow--and happiness--in this way? Like any good scientist, his theory is built on the back of an experiment. In order to understand what steps lead to happiness in the human experience, he developed an evaluative system known as Experience Sampling Method.

ESM uses a programable watch to send random signals to experiment participants from morning till night. Every time the signal goes off, the subject takes stock of who they're with, what they're doing, and what's on their mind. They then assign a series of number ratings to their "state of consciousness", guaging mood, concentration level, motivation level, self-esteem and so on.

Over the years, thousands of data sets have been collected, creating a sort of pointalist picture of how humans process emotion. According to Csikszentmihalyi's study, many of us in the US ping-pong between moments of anxiousness and "passive boredom," even in our leisure time. Television is perhaps the greatest instrument of this passive boredom since the average American spends 23 hours a week watching TV. Not surprising, ESM results suggest that happiness is not an outgrowth of the TV experience.

This makes sense; if your central goal is to live a more fulfilled life, it doesn't make much sense to spend 3.2 of your 16 daily waking hours in emotional limbo in front of a glowing screen.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that happiness comes not from emotional passivity but as the byproduct of complete engagement, which brings us back to flow.

How do we find flow? It occurs most often during our free time when we are engaged in the things we care about, but if the indicated conditions are right, it can happen in the workplace as well. The trick is to seek out or construct the right conditions and practice the four principles that allow for 'peak' experience. For many, it requires a willingness to change long-held habits.

Csikszentmihalyi says it's worth it: "Flow experience provides the flashes of intense living against the dull background of the daily grind."

There is, of course, no free lunch. Getting into increased states of emotional flow requires work. And like so many things, it begins with the first step. Whether it's relearning to play the piano as an adult, running a marathon, building a terraced garden, meditation, prayer or any other pursuit you deem worthy of your time, flow allows for an intensity of experience that helps offset our moments of anxiety. In this way, flow can serve as the handmaiden to happiness.


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