In the zone

Taking a look at Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

To experience flow is to be in the zone – that zone where everything else fades away and complete concentration is directed to what’s immediately at hand. Your coffee is getting cold and the vibrations of incoming messages have no pull. It’s extreme focus, to the point of distraction from everything else. You are fueled with a type of energy that’s almost possessive. This energy enables you to continue in your activity for minutes, hours longer than is normally possible. Everything is laid out in your head, logically, but incoming rapid fire. Clarity is at an all time high and decisions are made immediately without second-guessing. Everything feels natural and easy, but not so easy that there is no effort. Sometimes great exertion is required; however, each movement is simple in its ordering to reach the final objective. The flow state is exhilarating in its simplicity.

This is a universal experience but its realization differs depending on an individual’s interests and strengths. Most times, we don’t realize we have been in a flow state until the spell breaks and it’s over, and we can’t get it back. Think of a writer experiencing writer’s block after she’s whirled through the first third of the book. We spend a fair amount of our lives chasing the feeling that arises naturally from this experience: satisfaction, contentment, purpose. It’s a rewarding sensation. One could argue, as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi does in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, that the flow state is the essence of happiness and the definition of purpose.

Lest one thinks that “being in the flow” is a hippy-dippy follow-where-the-wind-takes-me mentality, Csíkszentmihályi repeatedly reiterates that flow doesn’t exist in a passive state. It’s generally an activity that requires a challenge. It requires something that continuously pushes an individual to greater heights; whether it’s a mountain climber who is indeed scaling her highest mountain yet, or a mechanic who is faced with a particularly unique engine problem never before faced.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Csíkszentmihályi argues that this state of flow leads to higher consciousness, deeper enjoyment and an overall greater quality of life. He deals with the flow state in relation to physical mastery, mental growth, and professional contentment. He even goes so far as to suggest that cultivating purpose by existing in the flow state aids to answer the age-old question “What is the meaning of life?” And just as the flow state varies in form from person to person, so too does this grand meaning.

The great triumph of this book is that it doesn’t read as a self-help book, although it addresses such trendy topics as career and personal life satisfaction. In fact, he mentions in the preface how easy it is to fall into the trap of attempting to offer a catch-all solution. The book is based on the results of psychological research without peppering each page with footnotes and academic prose. Csíkszentmihályi started his research with a theoretical study that involved a few hundred experts in their field – from artists to athletes to surgeons – and reflected on the similarity of their descriptions of “optimal experience” or what it felt to be in a flow state. He then extended that study to so-called normal, everyday people. The responses were consistently similar. To quantify their findings, they developed a method to record subjective experience. Participants in the follow-up study wore a pager that beeped eight times per day for a week. The subjects wrote down how they felt and thought at that particular moment. It provided a record of “representative moments” of what they were doing and how they felt. The results of the study are the basis for the book.

“The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere.”

One of the more interesting results of the study was that people had higher levels of satisfaction at work than during leisure time, regardless of whether the occupation in question was held in high regard. This brings into the focus the assertion that a flow state is not a passive state. Much of what we do in our leisure time (for example, watching television or drinking) is quite passive and brings us no deep satisfaction. Activities that challenge our mind and inner resources are those that reap the greatest rewards.

I bought this book thinking I knew what it was to be in the zone (the flow state, as Csíkszentmihályi puts it), as I had experienced it both on and off the basketball court. However, after reading Flow, my understanding has deepened considerably. In fact, some of the techniques addressed in the book were used for this very “book review.” If that isn’t practical learning, I don’t know what is.

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