What is the secret to happiness? According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it is the quality of our life experiences, also known as “flow”. In this blog, I will explain the concept and dive deeper into my personal experience with flow in everyday life.
What is Flow?
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is what we feel when we are alive. Flow is the total engagement in activities. Flow happens when we are fully engaged in life.
Flow has to do with the optimal experience. It is what the surfer feels when she paddles, gets up on the board, feels the power of the water pushing her, and elegantly moving in one direction and becoming one with the wave. In order to get there, one needs to know how to surf and find the right moment that is challenging enough to create this optimal experience between skill and challenge. When this happens, the experience becomes timeless, and one fully immerses in the activity itself.
How can you enter a state of flow?
While activities like surfing, climbing, dancing, drawing, or writing are more obvious ways to enter the flow state, essentially everything can become a flow experience. It is rather about the conditions that bring you in a flow state instead of the type of activity. The first condition is about paying full attention to whatever you are doing at this moment. So for instance, when you clean the floor, observe your movements. How are you holding the mop? In what way are you cleaning the surface of your kitchen counter? Try to concentrate on the areas that you are cleaning, the movements that you are doing, the sounds that you hear.
The second condition is about your involvement. For instance, when you are having a conversation, to what extent are you there with the other? Are you listening carefully? Are you with the other person or are you busy thinking about your own stuff?
Entering a state of flow becomes rather difficult in a world that is full of distractions. Vegetables only grow if the soil, the care, and the season are right. The same conditions apply for humans to enter the flow state. What do you need to be fully present? How can you protect yourself from too many distractions? How can you enter space again without being caught up in your thoughts?
TIP! If you find yourself too often distracted, I can recommend the book “Deep Work” written by Cal Newport
Flow in my day to day life: An Example of my Morning Dance
Dancing pops up immediately when I think about flow. The moment when I can fully let go of my thoughts, and connect to my bodily movement, I lose track of time. Through dancing, I can express how I feel, in a way that my thoughts cannot do. Especially in an environment that makes me feel safe, I am able to enter such a flow experience. When it comes to dancing, I don’t think that I have to follow a certain technique or fit into a box. I dance freely and listen and move with the music.
For instance, before writing this post, I decided to do a morning dance session. I searched for a song that wakes me up and gets me into flowing movement. I picked Nessi Gomes and her magical song “Dream Ride”. I started with slow movements trying to find the right synch to the song. Yet, I was stuck in my head trying to think about which move to do next. After putting more attention to the movements of my body and the soft and gentle sounds of the music, I could slowly detach from my thoughts. Within a few minutes, I could fully let go, losing track of time, and immersing in the sounds of the music, the environment, and allow flow to move my body in every corner. That very moment is unique. It creates lightness, happiness, spaciousness, creativity. It makes me feel strong and confident.
TIP! Read one of my former blog posts on the art of dancing through life: https://www.jaropichel.com/2020/08/31/dancing-through-life/
Inviting Flow into your life
While this morning dancing has helped me to get into a flow state, this is just one example. You can get into the same state while cleaning the floor, climbing a rock, tasting food, talking or listening to someone, even while watching a movie. It starts with focus, trust, and our relationship to the activity itself. And this is the secret to flow, and probably also to happiness. Being in the here and now, arriving in the present, being connected to yourself, to someone, or something.
Think about it for a moment. There is nothing you have to prove, to achieve, to possess, in order to experience happiness. Wonderful, isn’t it?
Cal Newport. Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK, 2016.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Vol. 1990. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Living in flow – the secret of happiness with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Happiness & Its Causes 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzPky5Xe1-s&ab_channel=Happy%26Well