On Flow

I have spent the past few weeks working on a post about Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow.  My aim in the post was to explain the sense of flow I felt when I completed my second project proposal, the coincidences that occurred to confirm my sense that something wonderful and transcendent had happened, and how it affected the rest of my life.  It seems as though such a post would be easy to complete, but as I have discovered, the more we try to talk about flow (or happiness, or success) and define the outer limits of the factors contributing to that moment, the more elusive the moment becomes, folding into the endless stream of stimuli that exists in the world around us.  While I may not be able to fully communicate this feeling of flow in such a short post, perhaps I can share a bit of what I’ve learned along the way.

When I was working on my project proposal I was afraid.  I had misunderstood the aim of this course (I thought it was on self-directed learning), and felt trapped in a meaningless exercise of APA style and graph making.  Being my first masters course, I was driven to despair that I was not good enough to complete these studies and that this mistake was certain to thwart all my carefully laid plans to get into post-secondary education.  I’m not sure what gave me the courage to contact Emma via Skype to discuss the growing void this class was falling into, but the personal connection I felt during that conversation was enough to change my perspective.  After our Skype chat, I went to work on putting the finishing touches on my intial proposal and was ready to hand it in when an alternate proposal blurted itself into my head and onto my computer.  As I mentioned, I felt inspired by this second proposal in ways I didn’t understand and felt compelled to pursue this path before Emma even accepted my proposal.

In the week that followed, I saw a marked shift in my interpretations of the stimulus in my world.  Events connecting with my choice of project seemed to serendipitously unfold, leading me further into an understanding and interpretation of factors that contribute to successful self-change.  In particular, three days after I submitted my proposal, I was randomly directed to Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk (link below) that explained to me the feeling of flow I’d experienced during the writing of my second proposal.  Csikszentmihalyi’s graph at 16:30 helped me to understand the common feelings associated with transferring to a state of flow, and gave me insight on how to conceptualize a balance between these feelings in order to reach that state.  Csikszentmihalyi relates how our perception of the effectiveness of our skill set in relation to the challenges we face can dictate how we see ourselves in a situation.  For example if our perceived skills are very low while the perceived challenges are high, we will likely be gripped with feelings of worry and anxiety, while if the challenge is low and our skills high, we may feel boredom or even apathy.  The majority of my responses about my project to date had been that of worry and anxiety with brief moments of arousal or control.  I recognized that if I were to reach a state of flow in my course, I would need to take greater control over the situation in order to bring the balance closer to flow.

The graph below is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s, though I suggest looking at his for a better representation.

A graph representing the attitudes of flow.

In fact, this is what I had just done.  I had contacted my professor directly with my frustrations, which she channeled quite effectively into a conversation on how I was going to move forward with my project.  By meeting my professor as an ordinary person on the other end of the computer, I was able to relax a bit about her role in the course.  With that little bit of relaxation of my anxiety, I could approach taking control of my project.  Of course this sense of control over my actions increased my sense of arousal about the process of the course, and I was able to move into a state of flow where my secondary project blurted itself onto the page.

While all of these coincidences were interesting and reassuring, perhaps the most fascinating development was the effect that finding flow in arguably the most important part of my life at the moment seemed to contribute to a greater sense of overall wellbeing.  During the past month I have had a number of interesting days in which I was able to move beyond my pattern of catastrophizing events and into a more flow-like approach (Seligman, 1998).  Perhaps the best example is the 7th of May. Through a series of unfortunate events, I had failed to make muffins for a man mourning two children, my once-a-month meditative chanting yoga was cancelled, my bicycle was stolen and I stepped in a big pile of shit with my new sandals on.  While any single one of these occurrences would usually be enough for me to write off my day, my feelings of satisfaction in my present focus in life helped me see other stimulus in the world.  I could see that a series of fortunate events had taken my boyfriend Pat to a group meal in support of the man in mourning, had given me an hour to myself playing my ukulele in the beautiful yoga studio, had found me having delicious pizza and beer with friends, and had allowed me the opportunity to walk all the way home playing my uke.  My day ended with the strangest sense of calm.

I’m still trying to conceptualize how and why a feeling of flow can inspire such a zen-like day, and I’m far from making any kind of argument justifying these ideas, but another TED participant has made me wonder what the role of our physical brain is in facilitating moments of flow.  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk on her “Stroke of Insight” (link below) makes me wonder if the lack of ego and focus on the present moment is indicative of moments of flow taking place in the right hemisphere of our brains.  Her inspiring TED talk is also well worth a watch.

So, I have written a longer post than anticipated, and have still failed to fully express the full enigma of my experience of flow, but as I get farther away from the moment, it becomes more and more difficult to define.  While I would like to fully grasp this concept, I will have to be satisfied with a partial explanation for the moment.  After all, I am headed to India in 4 days for a 30 day academic tour of NGOs, universities, and dalit communities, followed by a 30 to 40 day return to Yangshuo, China (where I live right now).  I can only hope that my intense thought of late on the subject of flow will sort itself out in the underground of my subconscious.

Bolte-Talyor, J. (2008). My stroke of insight. TED2008. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperPerennial.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004) On Flow. TED2004. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html

Seligman, M. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

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