Have you ever been fully engaged doing something that challenged your abilities, in a state of total ecstasy where nothing else mattered except you and the task at hand, so much in fact that you became completely unaware of your surroundings, losing your conscious self to that precious moment?
If so, then you have experienced what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called the optimal experience: Flow.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research has revealed that during flow people experience a blissful delight by being fully immersed in an activity that requires focused attention and skill.
Flow happens when individuals devote their entire energy and concentration to a challenge that stimulates growth and development.
As Csikszentmihalyi has stated, “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.”
Flow improves the quality of our experiences and makes for excellence, happiness, and satisfaction in life.
So how can we create more flow-producing experiences that contribute to our personal development? Here’s how.
Our determination is what triggers the state of flow.
Making up our minds to engage in an activity that requires effort can be challenging for those who lack the discipline or motivation to get started.
It all begins with taking that first step and deciding to invest our energy on something that involves work but that will ultimately help us grow and provide us a sense of fulfillment.
Contrary to what many would think, passive activities that require no mental or physical effort have less than half the chance of making us feel as good as flow-producing activities. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
So we can take the easy road and spend our time on activities that don’t require anything from us, knowing they will provide no major satisfaction, or we can decide to do something that will challenge us to step up but that will also give us the type of pleasure only growth can give.
To enter the state of flow we need to concentrate and devote our full attention to the task before us.
We must let go of all distractions and lose our self-consciousness to become one with what we’re doing.
This can become an obstacle for those of us who experience distracting thoughts more often than not. Focusing our entire concentration on an activity can be especially difficult when we’re caught up in our mind and not in the moment.
To act in the fullness of the flow experience we need to free ourselves from any distractions that take up room in our awareness and become fully immersed with what we’re doing.
Instead of worrying about the end result, we must concentrate on living the process.
People experience flow when they find a good balance between their perceived skills and the perceived challenge of the task they are taking on. Note that I said “perceived” and not actual skills or challenge.
This means that to experience flow it is important for us to have confidence in our abilities and believe that we’ll be able to overcome the challenge at hand, while taking on a challenge that we consider interesting and stimulating.
If we perceive the task to be too difficult in comparison with our skill level, we can always develop the necessary abilities to meet up to the challenge.
Instead of second-guessing ourselves, we must have faith in our potential and rely on our abilities to succeed. We need to believe it to make it happen.
Last but not least, we must learn to enjoy the activity for its own sake. As Csikszentmihalyi has mentioned, “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we are.”
Whatever you decide to do (write a poem, play an instrument, go scuba diving, negotiate a business deal, or cook an elaborated meal), make sure you enjoy the process. Who says “work” cannot be play?
Engaging in meaningful activities that interest us loses all purpose when we fail to have fun and enjoy them. It is by letting go that we can give our best performance.
Once we achieve a state of flow, any effort exerted will seem trivial in comparison with the bliss of the moment we’ll experience and the satisfaction we’ll gain as a result.
Try to imagine what it would feel like to get on a bike and take a ride, with no regard for anything except the balance of your body, the movement of your legs, the tension of your arms, the stretching of your back, the wind on your face, and the crunching noise of the tree leaves as you pass over them.
Now, can you imagine what it would be like to flow doing something that you love?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.