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Flow from Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi - a state of total focus and joy: two climbers illustrate flow through clear goals, feedback and challenge matched to skills


Ever since I came across Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's concept of Flow it has stayed with me as a simple framework and beacon for finding joy, creativity, and total involvement with life.

Mihalyi himself on his research:

"What I 'discovered' was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us come to being happy."

When researching happiness Csikszentmihalyi found that be they climbers, ballet dancers, chess players, or gardeners, people gave surprisingly similar descriptions to how they felt at their peak experience while performing an activity.

When in flow people are wholly focused on the present moment, they experience a strong sense of control, they lose their self-consciousness and their ego, their experience of time changes so that time can fly by or a moment can seem to slow down, and the joy of performing the activity becomes an end in itself.

Flow has a fairly simple set of conditions which I find myself using as a little mental checklist:

  1. Clear goals
  2. Clear feedback about your progress
  3. Matched challenge and skills

When climbing, a prototypical flow activity, it's clear that you are trying to get to the top, you can immediately see if you are making progress and whether an action progressed you or not, and it's wise to pick a wall that is difficult but not impossible, for you to enjoy it. No wonder climbing can be so addictive.

By contrast, it was evident to me that none of these were present when studying for my PhD.

I also like flow because it reminds me that peak happiness is unlikely to be experienced by sitting around watching the TV.

The quote is from, Flow, the psychology of happiness, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who also taught me that any name can work to do great work.

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