Shut down that prefrontal cortex and enter that ecstatic state
“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” - (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
A long time ago – back in the 1980s – this guy Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was studying happiness. He gave people pagers. Remember this was in the 1980s. Then he and his research assistants would send the people messages at random times and ask how they were doing, feeling, what they were doing, etc. It sounds a bit like when your mom texts you, honestly.
And he discovered flow. People were happy when they were super engaged in the task they were doing. People weren’t happy when they were doing nothing. They were happy when they were involved in something. Playing soccer. Playing music. Creating art. Solving a problem.
Minds were blown.
When people were in the ‘flow,’ they forgot about time, space, all the other detritus in their lives. They were focused on the now, on what they were doing. What they were doing might be writing, sports, hanging out with other humans, art, and so on… But for them the involvement was so intense that they became engaged and absorbed into it and were happy.
In a TedTalk Csikszentmihalyi showed a slide about happiness and money (that’s above) and said that since 1956 pretty much every study has showed that 30% of Americans declared their lives “very happy.”
Intrigued, he began to research artists who described the flow state and how for many when they were in it, they didn’t realize where the music, writing, or art was coming from. It was almost as if they lost their self in the process of creating.
How cool is that?
They didn’t just lose track of time, but they were so involved with the process that they lost a bit of self. That is an ecstatic state.
He said in that TedTalk:
Mike Oppland summarizes the eight traits of flow for the website Positive Psychology as”
“Complete concentration on the task;
Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
Effortlessness and ease;
There is a balance between challenge and skills;
Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
There is a feeling of control over the task.”
His article has a ton of interesting information about flow and the link is below. But quickly, it’s believed that some personalities achieve flow more often and that’s usually, he says, “people tend to do things for their own sake rather than chasing some distant external goal. This type of personality is distinguished by certain meta-skills such as high interest in life, persistence, and low self-centeredness.” So, autotelic people.
“It’s important to note that one can’t experience flow if distractions disrupt the experience (Nakamura et al., 2009). Thus, to experience this state, one has to stay away from the attention-robbers common in a modern fast-paced life. A first step would be to turn off your smartphone when seeking flow.
“Also, the balance of perceived challenges and skills are important factors in flow (Nakamura et al., 2009). On the one hand, when a challenge is bigger than one’s level of skills, one becomes anxious and stressed. On the other hand, when the level of skill exceeds the size of the challenge, one becomes bored and distracted.
“The experience of flow in everyday life is an important component of creativity and wellbeing. Indeed, it can be described as a key aspect of eudaimonia, or self-actualization, in an individual. Since it is intrinsically rewarding, the more you practice it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences, which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life.”
So, how about you? Do you ever experience flow? Is it like Nakamura says for you? Are you an autotelic personality, do you think? Did you use to experience and now you’ve lost it?
Living Happy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE BECAUSE LEARNING IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT
More about the 8 traits for flow.
This TedTalk by Andy Puddicombe is all about the transformative power of taking ten mindful minutes.
That TedTalk referenced above.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206.