The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge
Flow moments are when your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you ‘forget yourself’ and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as ‘being in the zone’). During this “optimal experience” they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
The key aspect to flow is self-control. In Flow, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces. As the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes,
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
Unsurprisingly Csikszentmihalyi comes to a conclusion similar to those of the great thinkers of the past: that happiness comes from within oneself. He points to ways in which humans have attempted in vain to find happiness through assigning power to things outside of one’s control, and he quotes Marcus Aurelius approvingly when the Stoic philosopher writes:
“If you are pained by external things it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that power now.”
The key to happiness consists in how we invest our psychic energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy literally ‘flows’ in the direction of that goal, resulting in a re-ordering and harmony within consciousness.
Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” He identifies some different elements involved in achieving flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way.
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills.
- Action and awareness are merged.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
- There is no worry of failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- The sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes an end in itself.
As the above qualities indicate, the flow-like state is not primarily characterised by subjective feelings, even positive ones. Rather, the essence of flow is the removal of the interference of the thinking mind.
Another consequence of the concept of flow is the confirmation of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view that happiness cannot be identified with pleasure. While a pleasurable experience is typically a passive state, like watching television, enjoying a massage, or popping a pill, the flow experience is an active state that is completely within the control of the person.
Csikszentmihalyi says, with flow:
Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.