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Flow

[Level 3: Pinnacle]

 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, focusing on human strengths such as optimism, motivation, and responsibility. He’s the director the Quality of Life Research Center there.

He has written numerous books and papers about the search for joy and fulfillment. Csikszentmihalyi began his research by studying creative people, including both artists and scientists.

One composer described his state of flow this way: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the music just flows out of itself.”

So his state of flow is an ecstatic state. Csikszentmihalyi notes that in Greek, ecstasy means to stand at the side of something. “So ecstasy is essentially stepping into an alternative reality.”

Our nervous system is not capable of processing more than approximately 110 bits of information per second, says Csikszentmihalyi.

In order to understand what somebody is saying, you need to process approximately 60 bits per second. This is why you cannot understand more than two people talking at the same time.

So when you are completely engaged in the process of creating something new, it consumes all of the available processing power, and there’s nothing left to allocate to thinking about other problems in your life. Your body and identity disappear from your consciousness and, according to Csikszentmihalyi, your awareness of your existence is temporarily suspended.

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed a poet who said, “It’s like opening a door that is floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.”

This describes the same effortless and ecstatic feeling that you get when you enter into this state of flow. When Masaru Ibuka was establishing Sony, Csikszentmihalyi says, his idea was “to establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart’s content.”

Through numerous studies, Csikszentmihalyi has discovered seven conditions that he says are required in order to enter into a state of flow:

  1. To be completely involved in what we are doing– focused, concentrating, and possessing a sense of clarity.
  2. A sense of ecstasy–being outside everyday reality.
  3. Great inner clarity–knowing what needs to be done and how well it is being done.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable–that our skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity–not worrying about oneself and the feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  6. Timelessness–thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to go by in minutes.
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

When these conditions are present, whatever you are doing is worth doing for its own sake.

This graph shows skills on the X-axis and challenges on the Y-axis. It’s likely that you will be in flow when you are challenged and your skills are also high. This makes sense because we all know what it’s like to do something that requires an enormous amount of skill.

This graph also shows how and why people feel arousal, anxiety, worry, apathy, boredom, relaxation, and control with different combinations of skills and challenges. Apathy is the state that usually accompanies watching TV because the challenges and the skills required are both low.

Even so, Csikszentmihalyi asserts that people can be in flow for approximately 7 or 8 percent of the time while watching television. It depends on what you’re watching and how interesting or important it is to you.