“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (founder of the psychological concept of FLOW)
FLOW is when a person’s concentration is so intense that there is no attention remaining for irrelevant thoughts or worry. Self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time alters. Any activity that produces such experience is so fulfilling that people are willing to do it for its own sake, without need for extrinsic reward and despite risk.
There are the categories of “games” we have here on this earth (according to Roger Callois) that provide a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality.
Agonistic: competition, these games are designed to actualize potential. (i.e., chess, sports)
Aleatory: games of chance, illusion of controlling the future. (i.e., slot machines)
Vertigo: transforms the way that reality is perceived; alter consciousness. (i.e., spinning until your dizzy, roller coasters, or hallucinogens)
Mimicry: feel as though one is more than what one is through fantasy, pretense, disguise. (i.e., role playing, acting)
Some individuals don’t need to be doing anything particularly special to experience FLOW; these people have what’s called an “autotelic personality.” These are the ones who are able to achieve FLOW in everyday moments. In fact, they can achieve FLOW even when life is ugly and painful. Autotelic people can survive some seriously tough times (the concept of FLOW was created by a man who was imprisoned as a child during WWII and discovered that playing chess in prison made all the suffering fade away from his consciousness) and come through those bitter circumstances even stronger, healthier, and even flourishing.
The autotelic personality is characterized by non-self-conscious individualism (people who are happily themselves without too much self-focus) and a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. Autotelic people tend to be intrinsically motivated and because they are not overly self-focused they have enough psychic energy free to observe and analyze their surroundings objectively. This allows them to discover new opportunities for fulfillment.
Csikszentmihalyi gives us some pointers for how to develop the autotelic personality traits in ourselves and others:
- Set goals that provide clear and instant feedback
- Become immersed in that particular activity
- Be mindful, be present, pay attention to what’s happening in the moment
- Learn to enjoy what’s happening in the moment
- Match skills to the challenge (not too frustrating or too easy; FLOW is achieved when skills are well-matched to the challenge at hand. It should be difficult but attainable with focused, practiced effort)
The autotelic individual can enter a state of FLOW more easily than everybody else. But everybody else can enter FLOW. It’s more difficult for people with learning disabilities, though, like ADD because of the concentration problem. But, if these individuals can find a FLOW activity in a distraction-free environment, then it will do wonders for their mental health and happiness.
Entering into FLOW promotes higher levels of performance and new states of consciousness. It transforms the self by making it more complex.
So, it’s really good to enter into FLOW. For everyone. And it can happen…
- when having a really engaging conversation with friends…you know…those excellent conversations where you’ve had to pee for the past 45 minutes but you just don’t want to get up and go to the bathroom because you’re so interested in what you’re discussing.
- when playing any of those above mentioned games (sports, dance, drama, art)
- when you’re running, baking, painting, writing, singing, or doing anything that you love
So, one way to combat stress in your life is to make time to find FLOW. Identify the activities that create a FLOW state for you and do that.
How do you experience FLOW?
for more on FLOW, you can view this TED Talk