What's in a name: The meaning of Flow
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
What is the importance of the word "Flow." To understand this, I would like to begin this blog with a quote by the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl so eloquently stated: “Don't aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue...as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” Man's Search for Meaning
The word “flow” is a very special word in its meaning; yet, in its simplicity and shortness it carries within itself a deep implication for how individuals experience events while going through life. A person in “flow” is optimally experiencing life at least for however long that flow experience lasts. In sports, this is called "being in the zone." Other than “optimal experience” as the definition of flow, what exactly is flow?
Flow is when someone is involved in an activity with all of their attention that nothing else seems to matter. This involvement is so enjoyable and pleasurable that people will repeat it over and over even if this involvement creates pain. Several decades of research in positive psychology have made interesting assumptions about enjoyment, purpose and meaning; people engaged in activities, often times painful activities, activities they said were enjoyable, even though money or fame wasn't the reward. But why?
The Quality of Experience
What keeps individuals engaged and motivated is the quality of experience one feels when participating in an activity. Relaxation, or taking drugs of any kind or participating in the advantages that endless money can offer was not the reason for enjoyment. In fact, the reason for enjoyment is quite the opposite. Enjoyment, oddly enough may involve pain, risk or difficulty; and these painful and difficult activities always stretched the person's capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery. This enjoyment is the optimal experience called "flow". But wait--there's more!
Flow: An in-depth look
Flow, or optimal experience, depends on the ability to control what happens in the conscious mind moment by moment. And in this moment to moment experience an individual has to achieve this flow state by using his or her own efforts, abilities and creativity. When skills match the opportunity for action and attention is invested in realistic goals a person can control the inner experience. When there is order of consciousness a person can have an optimal state of inner experience. Pursuing any realistic goal brings order in awareness. A person has to concentrate attention on the goal and momentarily forget everything else. When people engage, for example, in sports, games, art, or hobbies, the conscious mind is harmoniously ordered.
It is worth noting, if individuals concentrate too intently, too fixated, on what they want--the goal--the individual loses sight that in that moment pleasure can exist and thrive. This means individuals should slow down and enjoy the moment; a bit of "Carpe Diem" is at play here.
J. S. Mill stated “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” (Mindfulness practice is at play here; search DBT.) This is a compelling argument for the idea of “what you think is what you do and what you think and do is what you become over time.”
How to improve the content of experience?
Simply stated, an individual has to take things in their own hands and personally change their inner experience. Fascinatingly, an individual has to create and hone the ability to find enjoyment, pleasure, purpose and happiness regardless of external circumstances. An individual has to drastically change their attitude about what is important (or not) in order to achieve control over their experience.
There are two ways to improve the quality of life. One may try to make external stimuli/conditions (things outside oneself, things that aren't internal or within a person) match his/her goals; or secondly, an individual can change how he/she experiences external stimuli and having these external conditions fit the goals better. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi succinctly stated in his book, Flow... “To improve life one must improve the quality of experience.” Feeling secure, experiencing pleasure and participating in enjoyable events helps improve happiness.
The difference between pleasure and enjoyment?
Pleasure is a feeling of contentment when an individual's expectations about an event have been met. A few examples of pleasure would be good sex, great food and all the experiences money can buy. However, pleasure is not enough to sustain happiness. Pleasure helps maintain order but doesn't create new order within consciousness; (important for sustaining happiness).
What is an enjoyable event? A person has met some prior expectation (or satisfied a need, or desire,) and also experienced something unexpected; this is defined as enjoyable. Enjoyment is a sense of newness, novelty, of accomplishment. After an enjoyable experience a person has changed and the self has grown even if it is infinitesimally small. The more enjoyable events one engages in ultimately makes the individual more complex due to the enjoyable experiences. Experiences can most definitely be pleasurable and also be enjoyable; however, there is a difference between these two words.
Pleasure and Enjoyment
The difference between pleasure and enjoyable experiences is due to the sensations it creates for the person. If someone enjoys playing soccer, reading or conversing with others, undivided attention has to happen for enjoyment to occur. Individuals have to learn how to build enjoyment, daily, in order to gain personal control over the quality of experience. Research studies replicated around the world, from many different cultures have shown that "Flow" (optimal experience) are almost identical in all parts of the world. Studies have shown the phenomenology and doctrine of enjoyment; there are 8 components that have been identified:
8 Elements of Flow
1.) The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
2.) We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
3.) The concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals
4.) Provides immediate feedback.
5.) One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
6.) Enjoyable experience allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
7.) Concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
8.) The sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
9.) The activity becomes autotelic. (Autotelic: “something that is an end in itself.” There is no reason for doing them except to feel the experience they provide.)
post written by: Michael L. Kerns, MS, LPC, LCAS, MAC, CRC
This blog post was inspired by the research and writing of Mihaly Csikszenstmihalyi. For further insight and reading refer to his book.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1968). A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Some Structural Characteristics of Group Drinking. Human Development, 11(3), 201-216.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1978). Attention and the wholistic approach to behavior. In K.S. Pope & J.L. Singer, eds., The stream of consciousness (pp. 335-58). New York: Plenum.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1982a). Towards a psychology of optimal experience. In L. W., ed., Review of personality and social psychology. Vol 2. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1982b). Learning, flow, and happiness. In R. Gross, ed., Invitation to life-long learning (pp. 167-87). New York: Fowlett.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1985b). Reflections on enjoyment. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 28(4):469-97.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1987). The Flow experience. In M. Eliade, ed., The encyclopedia of religion, vol. 5 (pp.361-63). New York: MacMillan.