“Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself.”
-Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow
Can you think of a time when you were completely absorbed in what you were doing? A time where nothing else seemed to matter, you felt creative and fully in control, and all of your external worries slipped away. You may have been doing a project at work, engaged in your favorite hobby, or having a conversation with a friend. You commit yourself to the activity because you want to, not because you have to, and taking part in the activity is a reward in and of itself.
During these times, we are in flow. Flow, developed by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, is the optimal subjective experience of being completely immersed in an activity. Flow occurs when we have a clear goal, when we expand our skills to match the challenge of a given activity, and we receive immediate feedback about our progress. In sports, the experience of flow is often referred to as being in the zone.
Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal best-selling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was released in 1991 and had a profound impact on some of the most influential figures of the time, from President Bill Clinton to former Super bowl-winning Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmie Johnson. The research and application of flow has continued to flourish in a variety of domains, including work, relationships, the military, and sports.
It is through flow experiences that we develop as human-beings and pave the way towards reaching our full potential. By seeking out and engaging in activities that stretch what we we’re capable of, and then devoting our full attention to them, we grow our complexity as individuals, eliminate the plethora of distractions that we face on a moment-to-moment basis, and create our best work.
However, in the modern world dominated by digital technology, flow is becoming a more elusive experience. We are constantly inundated with distractions and information. Our job descriptions are often ambiguous, or even non-existent, making it more difficult to know what we’re supposed to focus on and work towards. Face-to-face interactions are increasingly being replaced by texting and social media, which can easily be accomplished while multi-tasking and hardly grow our connections with others.
Not coincidentally, the number of Americans with an anxiety disorder continues to rise in the United States. Modern society does not set-us up to fully invest our attention on a single endeavor. The ability to multitask has basically become a ubiquitous presence on job postings. Even when we watch TV, we often have our laptops open and are scrolling on our phones.
In our ability to do everything at once, we are doing nothing fully. There is a feeling of fulfillment that we get when we lose ourselves in one thing and see it through from start to finish, especially when it wasn’t easy. When we come out the other side, we’re not exactly the same person that we were before; we’ve developed in some way, either mentally, emotionally, and/or physically. These flow experiences contribute mightily to our overall sense of happiness and purpose.
Reflect on your flow experiences in the different areas of your life – at work, at home, with friends and family, during hobbies, exercise, etc. Deliberately seek these experiences out, and seek out new activities that have the capacity for flow as well. When we experience flow purposefully and consistently, it can be an antidote for many of the anxieties that have become a natural part of daily life in a digital world.