Linda: Mihalyi Csiksyenkmihalyi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, is the leading authority on flow state. Flow is happiness, joy, and rapture, the ultimate ecstatic state. In his important book, Flow, he defines flow as enjoyed engagement. There is a feeling of being swept up in the creative process, losing all sense of time. It is an experience of joy, passion, and deep fulfillment.
Between 1990 and 1995, he studied the lives of 91 exceptionally creative people in the arts, athletics, business, sciences, and government. He found that these were the people who were apt to move into flow state most frequently. He also conducted a study of thousands of people who were less accomplished. They consented to keep a pager with them 100% of the time. When the beeper goes off (randomly several times a day), they are instructed to write in a notebook what they are doing at that moment, and rate how much they are enjoying it. Not surprisingly the bodily pleasures of eating and sex got high ratings. But even higher ratings went to what he calls a state of total immersion in a task that matches our abilities and passions and challenges us to focus intently. Athletes call it “being in the zone.”
Flow is a process whereby an initial interest and enjoyment expands and deepens over a period of years to the point where these people become the biggest experts in their fields. In the beginning of their process, there were only intermittent moments of flow. Over time, the practice of “vital engagement” where people are consistently doing what they love, they have a clear sense of their identity, strengths, talents, passion, and purpose.
Flow feels like effortless movement whether skiing, playing team sports, ice skating, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, painting, making love, writing, photographing or having an intense conversation. It is not the activity itself that makes the difference; it is the level of challenge that fully engages our attention, combined with the positive feelings that accompany utilization of our skills and strengths. Once we enter the state of flow, work becomes effortless.
This leading authority on flow state states: “people seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are greater than usual and they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety.”
The very same principles that allowed the most accomplished people in the arts, business, sciences, and government to excel also pertains to those with the highest levels of fulfillment in their marriages. Committed partnerships offer plenty of challenges and that’s a good thing. We are weaving two lives, each with a different history, tastes, preferences, values, unhealed psychological wounds, ways of processing information, attitudes beliefs, and life goals. In the midst of all these differences is our vision of creating a fulfilling life together.
The differences, when they show themselves, can frighten us and make us angry. Part of the work required is to learn how to manage the strong emotions that erupt so that we learn from these feelings to move the relationship forward.
Together we pit ourselves against the challenge of becoming more emotionally fit to become eligible for that great relationship we long for. We have the option of holding everything the relationship presents to us as an opportunity to become stronger. As much as our mind may desire comfort and security, a wiser part of us knows that we can’t become stronger without challenging workouts in our relationship.
What’s required to move into that state of flow is to learn how to manage the intense feelings that plague relationships, fear, anxiety, doubt, anger, rage, resentment, boredom, lethargy, depression, cynicism about things improving. One or both of the couple can be overwhelmed with highly charged emotions that squeeze out the love and happiness from their relationship.
Learning how to modulate the intensity of these feelings positions us well to move into the higher states where focused attention is acute. Once we become accomplished at moving into a cooler state, not encumbered by intense emotions, concentration can be highly focused. Only then can we can enjoy the pleasure and grace of operating harmoniously as an effective team.
Diligent practice of our relationship skills brings trust and co-operation that provides the ability to do the metaphoric dance of relationship with elegance, style and beauty. The flow state may show itself in the form of joint creative expression, literally dancing, singing, writing, teaching, ecstatic love making, having a compelling conversation, raising children with inspiration, or creating an abundant, interesting, loving life together.
It’s possible; but it’s lots of work. The intrinsic joy in the process of moving towards mastery propels us forward. Using more of our innate capacities, persisting in the face of breakdowns and disappointments makes us stronger. With a full-hearted commitment and single-minded focus, we get better and better. And that is what results in the deep feeling of satisfaction that comes when we are bringing forth the very best in each other.