BIG IDEAS #4: FLOW

What if the basis of most of the enjoyment you will ever experience was almost completely within your control? What if all you needed to do to turn stress or boredom into fun was to slightly alter how you thought? What if this wasn’t a fuzzy claim from a new-age self-help book? What if it was the basis of a mountain of scientific research done with millions of participants of every age, gender, race and background from every culture, creed and continent?

WHAT IS FLOW?

flickr photo by Skistar Trysil http://flickr.com/photos/trysil/5575935281 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by Skistar Trysil http://flickr.com/photos/trysil/5575935281 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Imagine yourself skiing down a mountain in the French Alps. You’re sailing, in perfect curves, through the crisp white snow down the mountainside. The sun shines brightly in a blue cloudless sky yet the soothing air rushing through your jacket keeps you oh so perfectly cool. All you can see is the tree-lined piste in front of you, all you can hear is the sweeping carve of your skis against the snow and the whistle of the air as it passes. There is nothing but you and the mountain and everything else dissolves.

There’s a word for that feeling and that word is Flow.

Flow, briefly put, is the feeling of optimal experience. It is the sweet spot of enjoyment in any activity.

Now turning life’s poetic moments into a science might seem like a bit of a daft idea; like sticking your country’s flag in the ground and pretending you invented the planet. But the useful thing here is not that we give our enjoyment of life a special name but that if we understand a little something about what fun is then maybe we can make it happen more often in our own lives and in the lives of others.

WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

flickr photo by Anna(rita) Eva http://flickr.com/photos/13639877@N03/8589660123 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

flickr photo by Anna(rita) Eva http://flickr.com/photos/13639877@N03/8589660123 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

A man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-High Cheek-Sent-Me-High) originally began his research on the topic of enjoyment (or peak experience as he calls it) in the seventies. Though he might be short on vowels he’s pretty long on thorough research and over several decades he and his colleagues studiously conducted surveys with hundreds of thousands of subjects, of all persuasions, cultures, countries and backgrounds asking them at random times of the day what they were doing and whether they were enjoying it. As time went by the pattern that emerged was that regardless of wealth, education, background or culture, people have their best moments when they are totally engrossed in the activity they are doing right then and there.

Some people found it milking goats. Others climbing mountains. Others playing tennis or fixing the engine of a tractor. The point was that enjoyment had a structure and according to how you balanced yourself against that structure you would find or lose a sense of enjoyment.

WHAT IS FUN?

flickr photo by Crystian Cruz http://flickr.com/photos/crystiancruz/3310828336 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

flickr photo by Crystian Cruz http://flickr.com/photos/crystiancruz/3310828336 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

I should probably clarify at this stage that the ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’ I’m describing are not the euphoric heights of ecstacy…

flickr photo by La Chachalaca Fotografía http://flickr.com/photos/migueltejadaflores/17255386843 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

flickr photo by La Chachalaca Fotografía http://flickr.com/photos/migueltejadaflores/17255386843 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

…they are the quiet warm immersion of total engrossment in something. Which is not to say that you can’t be in a state of flow during certain euphoric activities (e.g. sex), just that ketchup on your fries is a different thing to the fries themselves…

flickr photo by EvelynGiggles http://flickr.com/photos/evelynishere/3803238830 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by EvelynGiggles http://flickr.com/photos/evelynishere/3803238830 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

…so I’m sure you’re glad I cleared that up.

Enjoying any activity depends on a number of different things being present:

  • Concentration on the task in hand.
  • A clear goal.
  • Immediate feedback about whether you are achieving your goal or not.

But most importantly it depends on

A balance between your own skills and the scale of the challenge you’re attempting.

If your skills outweigh your challenge then you will become bored.
If the challenge outweighs your skills then you will become anxious and stressed.

Enjoyment and fun happen when you are attempting a challenge that your skill level is only just good enough to achieve.

It’s a Goldilocks problem; you need the challenge and your skills to be just right to enjoy yourself.

flickr photo by caseorganic http://flickr.com/photos/caseorganic/5528981189 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

flickr photo by caseorganic http://flickr.com/photos/caseorganic/5528981189 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

And here’s where the useful, use-able snippet of the blog comes in:

  1. If you are finding something boring then you need to increase the level of challenge you are attempting.
  2. If you are finding something stressful then you need to decrease the level of the challenge you are attempting.
  3. If the challenge cannot be made easier then you need to increase your own level of skill in order to enjoy it.

The good news is, with this last one, the optimum state in which to learn and improve is then one that is most enjoyable. Think about it: it is easier to keep practicing when the practice is fun.

If the practice is boring then you’ll probably quit. If the practice is too stressful then you’ll probably quit.

The best way to maintain learning of any skill is to practice at the level that is fun and then increase the difficulty as it becomes too easy and therefore boring.

That’s why its so important to learn at your own pace; you need the learning to be fun so that in the long-term you will carry on studying, training and practicing.

SO WHAT?

The only real question about Flow is why it hasn’t been adopted in a more widespread way. It should be the basis of how education is designed, how employees are managed, how children are raised. How societies are structured and cities are designed. Indeed, lots of companies, organisations and governments are starting to take it seriously. Productivity and efficiency are hugely reliant on a motivated workforce and what we are all definitely motivated by is enjoying ourselves!

Now since I discovered this idea, when I was about 16 years old, I have drifted back and forth between different ideas and concepts as I ask myself questions about what a good life is all about. And while the distracting form that life takes: the jobs, activities, people and places will change and transform in a number of ways as time goes by, the substance remains the same. At any given time there is always a goal or activity and always a desire to make that goal as enjoyable as possible.

No matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, Flow is the idea that can save you from boredom and rescue you from anxiety. In other words, Flow is a way to make anything and everything more fun. And that, as ideas go, is always pretty useful.

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