Happiness doesn’t just happen: it must be cultivated, says Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who has studied what he calls optimal experience. We are happiest when we are absorbed in a state of concentration so focused that everything else is falls away. At those times, we experience effortless control, a sense of discovery, and high levels of performance, breaking through previous barriers.
Psychologist Csíkszentmihályi coined the name flow for the idea of delving so deeply in an activity that we lose track of time and feel absorbed in something larger. It is complete focus in meeting a challenge.
The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost, said Csíkszentmihályi, in his book, Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Csíkszentmihályi contends that it is not our outward conditions that make us happy, but our inner lives that allow us to turn threats into challenges, to reach our goals, and to maintain inner harmony. His ideal is the “autoletic self.” Autotelic people are internally driven, experiencing purpose and curiosity. They are less motivated by comfort, money, power, or fame.
Flow depends on selecting challenges that engage our skills completely, so our energies are completely absorbed. We stop being aware of ourselves as separate from our tasks. There is a merging of action and awareness, an effortless and purposeful flow of energy. We forget ourselves, time, and obligations. We are transported by our experience, achieving higher levels of performance. We are happy.
Is Flow an elusive, accidental mood we stumble upon? No. Flow can be cultivated. Here are some of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s guidelines:
1. Set goals. Autoletic individuals select goals and make choices with little fuss or panic. Our goals determine the sequence that follows. If we want to learn to swim, we must learn the crawl and other strokes, build endurance, perfect our kick, practice often. The autoletic person transforms outward experiences into flow.
2. Become immersed in the activity. When the challenges match our skills – neither boringly easy or dauntingly difficult – we can become involved. Involvement is enhanced by concentration, which blocks distractions.
3. Pay attention to what is happening. Constant challenges keep us alert, aware, and responsive to the needs of the work. Self-consciousness, the most common source of distraction, is replaced by commitment to the task at hand. At this point, we no longer feel like a separate individual. We grow beyond the limits of individuality by investing psychic energy in the activity. The self merges with the action.
4. Learn to enjoy immediate experience. When we have learned to set goals, develop skills, respond to feedback, concentrate and be involved, we enjoy life, regardless of our outer circumstances. To achieve this requires determination and discipline. Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic approach. We must develop skills that stretch out capacities.
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