Searching for happiness and how to live a meaningful life is a question that philosophers, theorists, and psychologists, are trying to answer for decades. One of them is Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who saw how World War II affected people’s lives. He realized that many adults around him found it hard to live contentedly after they lost their material wealth, homes, jobs, and security due to the war. This led him to begin his research on what makes a life worth living.
He found that, although money can help, it can’t make people indefinitely happy; he then tried to find the answer by researching human motivations, contentment, and fulfillment. His research arrived at the conclusion that people are at their optimal happy and productive selves when they experience a state of flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is when a person is so immersed in their activity that they ignore outside stimuli like time and their basic needs; the only thing that matters at the moment is what they are doing.
Though Csikszentmihalyi started his research with artists, painters, and musicians to understand their creative process and motivation to do something that will unlikely bring fame or fortune, he stated that everyone can experience the flow state. He further described that experience as the state of doing things just for the sake of doing it. People don’t need external motivation to do something; they are doing it because of the positive feeling that the activity can give.
So, how exactly does flow affect someone’s happiness? Csikszentmihalyi stated that activities that involve some play and work are the best opportunity to reach a flow state, and through that, reach happiness as well. He explains that happiness is a state of mind, one that is affected by consciousness regardless of what happens outside of themselves. One of the ways to change one’s consciousness is through getting into the flow state.
Csikszentmihalyi continued his research on finding the link between flow and happiness by doing research on teenagers. He found that teenagers with high flow spent more time doing activities like hobbies and sport. Participants of the research also reported greater success in school, social relationships, and long-term happiness. The result of the research showed that the strongest predictors of long-term happiness are as follows: one’s presence in the flow state, ability to be sociable, how active one is, and the positive feeling one has towards themselves.
Flow is something that cannot be forced or does not happen whenever one feels like it. However, some people with a high level of conscientiousness and openness to experience are more likely to experience the flow state. Here are some ways you can optimize your chance to enter the state of flow.
- Minimize distractions
Flow is a state of mind with internal motivation, so it’s very important to minimize and reduce external distractions. Research has shown that to enter the flow state, it’s necessary to have an undivided focus for around 10-15 minutes and eliminate all the external distractions. So, make sure that you put away your phone or disable all your notifications as this might be one of the biggest external distractions. This also includes clearing unnecessary items from your surroundings and having a quiet environment to help you be hyper-focused and immersed in your activity.
Internal distractions can also be a hindrance. If you have too much on your mind or you are anxious about something, it will be harder for you to enter the flow state even without external distractions. To avoid this, clear your mind by writing down your thoughts and feelings every day in a journal or doing some meditation. It will help you to understand your thoughts and feel better so you can control possible internal distractions.
- Have a specific goal
To reach a state of flow, you need to have a clear and specific goal on what you want to achieve. Without a goal in mind, you will most likely do things simultaneously or switch between tasks that shift your focus and get you distracted easily. This will prevent you from reaching the state of flow. Having a goal will keep your mind from wandering and minimize your internal distraction to reach the state of flow.
Though having a clear goal is one of the important aspects to reach the flow state, you also need to remember to enjoy the process and moment while doing the activity. It is important to remember that the activity you want to get into should be something that you like and enjoy doing. Being in a flow state can give you a positive experience by enjoying the present moment when you are completely immersed in your work.
- Balance skills and challenges
Csikszentmihalyi explains the state of flow as the right balance between a person’s perceived skills and the challenges that they face. If a person faces a challenge that is higher than their skills, they will become anxious and stressed. If a person’s skill level is higher than the challenge, they may get bored and become distracted. A flow state can only be achieved when the challenge is enough to make you interested while providing a challenge to your current skills without being too hard.
Aside from that, Csikszentmihalyi also described the opposite of the flow state called apathy. It is a state when you do an activity that presents no challenge and requires no skills to do it like watching TV, browsing through social media, and other mindless entertainment. When someone is continuously involved in this activity, it can become harder for them to reach the flow state.
To experience flow in everyday life will not only give you positive emotions but can also be intrinsically rewarding and helpful for an individual’s journey towards self-actualization. The more you experience flow, the more you want to replicate these feelings. This can help you to not only have positive experiences through it but also make you happier.
Flow is an innately positive experience. If you are having trouble reaching the state of flow, try to minimize distractions, and have a specific goal in mind, and keep challenging yourself. Being in a state of flow will help you have a more meaningful life.