Flow makes you feel happy.* In 1992, professor Mihaly Csiksentmilhalyi published a book about his decades of research into ‘optimal perfomance’ and put a name to this new psychology – flow. Over the years his book ‘Flow’ has become a classic work on how to achieve happiness.
Csiksentmilhalyi’s work was revolutionary in the field of psychology because until that time, psychology had almost solely been focused on the ‘negatives’ of human experience and behaviour, and not the ‘positives’.
In brief, Csiksentmilhalyi’s research shows that to access a flow state that can bring you happiness, fulfilment and even joy, you need to have a goal, either internal or external, to challenge your existing skill set, one that puts your ability to the test and requires your full attention to do so.
I read Csiksentmilhalyi’s book many years ago, long before I came across the understanding that I now teach, but I wanted to re-read the book to see how it lines-up to my present day experience and understanding of flow. Doing so gave me new realisations, two of which I’d like to share with you, taken from two paragraphs of the book.
1) “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 can come to being happy.”
Inner experience is the key to being happy because all experience is created within us, however from my experience of flow it doesn’t need to be reliant on having control of inner experience, it’s rather to first understand how inner experience is created, i.e. the operating system that runs the show.
Once you understand how that works, then there’s no need to use your vital energy to control your mind, which in reality is a task very few people are able to master.
In Flow, Csiksentmilhalyi also talks about giving order to consciousness, which I feel is preferable to control, because once you have an embodied understanding of how consciousness brings into your awareness your inner experience (without consciousness you wouldn’t be aware), then order begins to naturally occur.
2) “[During flow states]… What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are. And being able to forget temporarily who we are seems to be very enjoyable. When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are.”
You live your life experiencing a ‘concept’ of yourself, a concept created from your beliefs, values, history and culture. It’s your own unique, individual story that plays out in your consciousness and gives you an experience of yourself.
Consciousness allows you to be aware and there is only so much information at any given moment that you can be aware of.
When you forget about yourself, or rather, when the thoughts about yourself are not in your moment-to-moment awareness (often limiting your perception of yourself) then you are free to tap into what sits behind your concept – unlimited human potential, renewed energy and fresh ideas, and as Csiksentmilhalyi says, “we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are”.
* Flow makes you lose the concept of your ‘self’. You literally get out of your own way. You then experience a different version of yourself, one that is fresh, energised, exhilarated and happy, a version of yourself that’s not based on who you already think you are. You get to expand your own capacity.
An interesting thing to consider is this:
Happiness can be attained when you are not consciously aware of the concept of your self, when you are lost in the experience of whatever you’re doing. Ironically, the reward of that is expanding the concept of your self, you experience a new version of you.
If this is true (and from my experience it is) then happiness can also be experienced without the requirement of goals and skills, and the flow state can expand into everyday life, whether experiencing the mundane or the complex.
Happiness seems to require no conscious thought for it to occur, it’s a natural state that’s already within you when you get out of your own ‘self-conscious’ way.
Flow allows you to experience the best version of yourself and that is very enjoyable.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Mihaly Csiksentmilhalyi’s flow research, then see his TED Talk Flow, the secret to happiness https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow