Improving Well-Being: Finding Flow in Life


Dave Hood

“Happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.” —Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow

Wealth, power, sex, material comforts don’t ensure happiness or well-being. Many people who possess these trappings of success still live empty lives of quiet desperation, often because flow experiences are not part of their life. What is flow?

According to Professor of Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is optimal experience or “total involvement with life.” It is not a destination but means by which a person immerses the mind in an activity or event or experience. “It is the state in which a person becomes so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience is goal-direct, intrinsically rewarding, challenging, enjoyable.” There are many types of activities that generate flow, such as writing, creating art, dancing, playing a musical instrument, participating in a game of tennis or chess.

You can discover and then use flow experiences to transform a purposeless, meaningless, or boring existence into a life that’s enjoyable, desirable, infused with inspiration, a life that evokes the feeling of enthusiasm, that you’re living life to the fullest, a life that elevates your sense of happiness and well-being.

Flow Experiences
There are countless flow experiences that will improve your well-being. Here are a few:
Flow of senses. Engaging in a life experience that require you to use one or more of your senses, such as your sense of sound, enabling you to focus your attention on beautiful music, and feel delight.
Flow of socializing. Sending quality time with another human being, such as immersing yourself in an interesting conversation with friends, family, significant other.
Flow of humanity. Transcending your “ self” to helping others who are suffering. Ghandi and Mother Teresa are two people who lived compassionate lives, focusing on reducing the suffering of others.
Flow of body. Using your body for physical activity, such as yoga, running, bike riding, dancing, swimming, sex.
Flow of work. Using your mind in work that’s challenging, intrinsically rewarding.
Flow of leisure. Engaging in enjoyable leisure pursuits, requiring you to think and focus attention, such as appreciating the wonder of a painting by one of the masters, hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Watching TV is not a flow experience.
Flow of mind. Using your mind to think through and achieve a goal—Reading, writing, playing a game of chess, solving puzzles, such as the Crosswords or Sudoku.

Conditions of Flow
In his book, titled, “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, identifies several conditions of flow:
1. You must participate in a challenging activity that requires skill.
2. There must be clear goals and feedback.
3. The event or experience must allow you to merge action and awareness.
4. You must be able to concentrate on the task at hand or flow experience, avoiding any distractions, such as boredom or stress.
5. You must be able to lose the sense of “self” or feeling self-consciousness.
6. You feel a sense of confidence or person-control as you take part in the event or experience. You believe that you will succeed.
7. You will experience the transformation of time. It passes quickly, as though timeless.
8. You engage in flow experiences because they are intrinsically rewarding.

Obstacles of Flow
What are the obstacles to experiencing flow? There are many:
Boredom. Banality of routine, repetition, mindless experiences will distract your mind, preventing from experiencing flow.

Stress. Worry, anxiety, and fear will distract your mind and deplete psychic energy, required to experience flow.

Alienation. Feeling socially isolated, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of society can prevent flow.

Distractions. Noise, multi-tasking, worry, responsibilities, and so forth, will sabotage flow.

Lack of motivation. Feeling apathetic will prevent you from taking steps to experience flow.

Misfortune, grief, loss. Each of these drains energy from the mind and body, making it difficult to experience flow.

Lack of necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing. Before you can experience flow, you must have a basic standard of living, and not been in need of life’s essentials. Otherwise, you will focus on obtaining these necessities, instead of seeking flow.

Inability to concentrate, perhaps, due to attention deficit disorder or addiction, will prevent you from experience flow and its benefits.

Each of these distracts the mind, prevents it from focusing, giving full attention to the immediate experience, resulting in optimal experience.

Some people are able to overcome setbacks or challenges, learn from them, and transform them into flow experiences. For instance, in dealing with stress, people use their psychological resources, social supports, and various coping strategies, such as problem solving, goal setting, and stress management.

How can you transform setbacks or misfortune into flow experiences? Do the following:
1. Set achievable goals.
2. Becomes immersed in the activity.
3. Pay attention to what is happening.
4. Learn to enjoy the immediate experience.

Benefits of Flow
Engaging in flow activities will produce several benefits, including:
1. Achievement and accomplishment. When you achieve a goal, you will feel a sense of accomplishment.
2. Joy and Pleasure. While pursuing the goal, you will experience joy, pleasure, awe.
3. Improved well-being. The flow experience will boost your happiness and sense of well-being, as defined by psychologist Martin Seligman. (Positive emotion, engagement, enhanced relationships with people, meaning and purpose, achievement and accomplishment )
4. Increased Self confidence. While pursuing a goal, perhaps learning to paint, you begin to feel more confident, because you are using one or more skills and talents.
5. Mastery of skills. While pursuing a goal, for instance, becoming a serious photographer, you gain experience, often resulting in the mastery of skills.
6. Meaning and purpose. Engaging in flow experiences enriches your life, providing you with something to look forward to. For instance, the artist looks forward to waking each morning, venturing to his studio, creating art.

Tips for Finding Flow in Life
How can you add flow to your life? Follow your bliss, or embrace your passions. Set and work at achieving meaningful goals. Socialize with people who are interesting, talkative, humorous, and sociable. Embrace the arts. You can visit an art gallery or learn to play a musical instrument or take up photography. Learn a new skill. Many people take courses, such as creative writing, master something practical like cooking, or learn a new language. Make learning a lifelong pursuit. Add fitness activities that create flow into your life, such as running, yoga, dancing.

Meaning and purpose are two of the most important benefits of flow. You can achieve purpose by establishing meaningful goals and then focus your attention on them. How do you find meaning and purpose? According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The meaning of life is meaning: whatever that is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.” (Flow, page 217) He suggests that we can optimize our well-being by “turning all life into a flow experience.” (Flow, Page 215) The key is to discover your life’s purpose and then take action to achieve it. This will give you meaning.

Additional Reading
• Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
• Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
• Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman
• The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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