If you’ve ever felt an unexpected sense of pleasure while performing a simple task like crunching numbers or cooking a homemade meal, you’ve probably experienced what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow –a state of complete absorption in an activity or situation. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi believes, is fundamental to happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-born, former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, has been studying happiness and productivity for over 35 years. He has been nicknamed the grandfather of positive psychology, a trend in organizational research that focuses on optimal experience and the achievement of excellence.
The Theory of Flow
Early in his career, Csikszentmihalyi developed the Experience Sampling Study, a method of measuring a person’s happiness throughout the course of a day. In the initial phase of the study, a group of teenagers was asked to record their thoughts and feelings at regular intervals. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that while most of the teenagers exhibited symptoms of unhappiness during activities that required passive participation, their moods lifted when they were immersed in a challenging task. This observation became central to the development of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow.
“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,” Csikszentmihalyi writes in Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience. “Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
Flow Is A Skill
While Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that some people are predisposed to flow, he suggests that being receptive to flow is a skill that can be acquired through effort and discipline. He has identified nine elements that contribute to flow state: challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, the paradox of control, the transformation of time, loss of self-consciousness, and autotelic experience.
Although Csikszentmihalyi shies away from the outright commercialization of his theories, his research has been embraced by leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and companies, including Microsoft, Toyota, Patagonia, and Ericsson. The Wall Street Journal included Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience on its list of six books “every well-stocked business library should have.”
Apply Flow To Your Workday
I would be remiss if I did not recommend that you pick up a copy of Csikszentmihalyi’s books, but in the interim, here are a few insights into how you can make your workday more productive and rewarding:
- Practice mindfulness in every aspect of your life. “If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life” Csikszentmihalyi says in Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life. “To do so is fairly easy in principle, but more difficult in practice. Yet it is sure worth trying. The first step is to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble.
- Find meaning in your work. “Usually I find that people who become intrinsically motivated in their job, whether they’re surgeons or cooks in a restaurant, are the people who paid enough attention to what they had to do to discover small differences in performance and small differences in the product and became fascinated with the possibility of improving what they were doing,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a recent interview. “They found ways to do it faster, better, and more elegantly with less effort. You find that these people, once they discover that and they begin to practice what they learned about the job, become attracted to the performance of excellence or whatever other goals they have established for themselves. Then they will become intrinsically motivated.”
- Develop a mission-oriented ethos. “Perhaps the most distinguishing trait of visionary leaders is that they believe in a goal that benefits not only themselves, but others as well,” says in Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. “It is such vision that attracts the psychic energy of other people, and makes them willing to work beyond the call of duty for the organization.”
- Remember that success and happiness require effort. “It’s a possibility that we have to discover how to be happy,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a recent interview. “Happiness is to do things that are harmonious with who we are, with what we can do, with what we like, and with what we think is right. Do it. Don’t figure that somebody else will do it, or that you don’t have a right to do it. If you miss that opportunity to express yourself, not as a showman who’s expressing himself. If you like to think alone on a mountaintop, then that’s how you express yourself. That’s what you should be doing. That is a recurring theme that occasionally re-inspires me because somebody had already seen that hundreds of year ago and it’s kind of nice to see that people were able to penetrate the veils of Maya and see these things a long time ago.