1: Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered something fascinating.
The people who score the highest for overall well-being and life satisfaction are those with the most “flow” in their lives.
So, what exactly is flow?
Mihaly began studying high performance in the 1970s. He traveled “around the world asking tens of thousands of people about the times in their life when they felt their best and performed their best,” Steven Kotler writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
He spoke with chess players, surgeons, dancers, Italian grape farmers, Navajo sheep herders, Chicago assembly line workers, elderly Korean women, and Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members.
“Everyone he spoke to, regardless of culture, class, gender, or age, said they feel their best and perform their best when they are in “a state where every decision, every action, flows seamlessly, perfectly, from the last.”
He called it “flow” because that’s how the state feels.
“Evolution shaped the brain to perform at its best by getting into flow,” Steven notes.
2: Mihaly identified six core psychological characteristics that define the experience of flow. Steven summarizes them as follows:
i: Complete Concentration: Our attention is locked onto the task at hand. Engagement, enjoyment, and total absorption are right here, right now.
ii: The Merger of Action and Awareness: We no longer distinguish the self from what the self is doing.
iii: Sense of Self Vanishes: Our sense of self-consciousness disappears. The inner critic is quieted. The voice of doubt is silenced. We experience this as liberation, as freedom; we are finally getting out of our own way.
iv: Altered Sense of Time: Either time slows down, and we get a freeze-frame effect, or time speeds up, and five hours pass by in five minutes. We are plunged into an elongated present, sometimes called “the deep now.”
v: Paradox of Control: We have a powerful sense of control over the situation—often in a situation that is typically not controllable. We are the masters of this small slice of our destiny.
vi: Autotelic Experience: The experience is intensely and intrinsically rewarding. The thing we’re doing is so pleasurable and meaningful that we will go to great lengths to do it again, even at enormous personal risk and expense.
3: Decades after Mihaly’s research, we can now measure flow. Psychologists have numerous well-validated methods to measure the six attributes and the depth to which they appear during a given experience.
Researchers have learned there are varying degrees and intensities of flow, from a low-grade “microflow” state to a full-scale “macroflow” state.
“In microflow, all or most of flow’s six core characteristics show up, just dialed down super-low,” Steven writes. “This is when we sit down to write a quickie email, only to look up, an hour later, and realize we’ve written an essay. Along the way, we have no idea time was passing.”
Macroflow, on the other hand, is “one of the most potent experiences we can have on this planet,” he observes. This is when all of flow’s qualities show up all at once, at maximum level. This was what Steven experienced during his quasi-mystical experience surfing away Lyme disease.
Because brain imaging technology has improved dramatically, we are now able to see inside the brain to see where and how flow happens.
“And it’s this map,” Steven writes, “that has made training flow a very real possibility.”
Reflection: How often do I experience flow, that feeling of being “in the zone,” fully engaged, fully focused on a specific activity? What activities tend to trigger this experience? How much more energized and productive am I in the flow state?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.