What constitutes a good life?
This is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions in the field of positive psychology and researchers studying happiness across the world. Awareness of the concept of flow, as a phenomenon, can lead us to a deeper understanding of this seemingly existential question.
Flow is perhaps the central theme in the lives of successful and happy people and can give us excellent insight. Flow research has revealed that a good life is when one is completely absorbed in what one does – being so engrossed in the activity you are engaged in, that you become unaware of your self and surroundings. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychologist credited with having popularized the concept of flow, offers another definition for the mental state in flow:
“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Csikszentmihalyi stumbled across the concept of flow while he was studying creative processes in the 60’s. He was struck by the fact that, when work on a painting was going well, the artist persisted single-mindedly - disregarding hunger, fatigue and discomfort - yet rapidly lost interest in the painting once it was completed. Has this ever happened to you - being so deeply engrossed in an activity, that you are completely consumed in the process?
This could often happen when you are intrinsically motivated or engaged in autotelic activity, i.e. activity rewarding in and of itself (auto=self, telos=goal) quite apart from its end product, or any extrinsic good that might come out of it. Intrinsically motivated activities can include anything that you simply enjoy doing – be it playing chess, dancing, rock climbing or even your job!
Some of the characteristics of flow include working to your full capacity and skill. The task you are involved in may completely push your envelope of skills and abilities, yet you have an innate belief you are capable of completing the task and have a fair chance at it. Psychologists term this phenomenon as a state of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. Another characteristic surrounding the state of flow is to have a clear stream of feedback and defined goals.
From my analysis and personal experience, I believe being in flow and being intrinsically motivated are key concepts towards being happy. Imagine loving your work so much, it does not matter what reward you get for it. During my time interning at my first mental health institution, working with certain populations was so pleasurable I would unknowingly do a double shift, skip lunch, and not even realise it! I was not getting paid - but I enjoyed the experience so much. I truly believe I was in flow at the time and that period of interning was perhaps the happiest time in my life. The consequent satisfaction and happiness that I felt, even had a spill-over effect onto my personal life and health as well.
Some signs that indicate when you are in flow - having an intense and focused concentration on what you are doing in the present moment, nothing else really matters and a loss of reflective self-consciousness, i.e. loss of awareness that you are a social actor. You simply, just are. However, you feel in complete control of your actions and there is a noticeable increase in speed with which time passes. You enjoy the process so much; the goal feels just like an excuse. For example, you enjoy baking so much; the cake or muffins do not really matter as much as you enjoy the process of making them.
Finding your own flow, in whatever activity or sphere is crucial to living a good life. Being in flow elevates you to a point where your true potential is fully challenged and the best of you emerges – a beautiful thing, indeed. It is a form of meditation where you are alleviated of being you and become a part of something that is greater than self. The way meditation gives us temporary relief from this consciousness and helps us delve deeper, flow has a similar, if not greater, effect on your sense of self.
I urge people to always try to find their flow - as both the person and environment shape the unfolding of flow. You may have found yourself as a person, but not your ideal environment or vice versa. Realising what puts you in flow is bringing you one step closer to your greater calling and ultimately living a fulfilled and happy life.
Ayesha Khan, Clinical Psychologist, NLP Practitioner at House of Cheer.