How to Be Happy: Go With the ‘Flow’

Sarah Treleaven will seek out someone who has gained wisdom and insight into how to live a happier, more fulfilling existence and she will get their best advice.

This time: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, is at the forefront of the “positive psychology” movement – the study of creativity, optimism, motivation and responsibility. He has written several books, including Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, and Good Business: Flow, Leadership and the Making of Meaning. Here, he discusses the concept of “flow” and how losing yourself in an activity can enhance your overall quality of life.

Q: What is flow? What does it feel like?

A: Flow is a state of feeling, or experience, that people report when they are completely involved in what they are doing. This experience is usually so positive compared to the rest of life that one is willing to repeat it even though it might be difficult, and nothing results from it except the experience itself.

Q: What are the essential components?

A: It usually happens when a person has a clear goal, and the activity is neither too difficult nor too easy – the challenges and the person’s skills are in balance. The activity typically provides clear and timely feedback – when you sing, you hear immediately whether the sound you produce is what you wanted to make. When these conditions are present, one begins to concentrate on the activity, every other concern disappears, you forget yourself, the passing of time; you feel in control, part of something greater than yourself. Then the activity becomes autotelic, in other words, worth doing for its own sake.

Q: How did you discover the concept, and why did you choose that particular name?

A: I had experienced it myself many times. Then, about 40 years ago, I was teaching a college seminar on play, and I found that many scholars wrote extensively on play, but none tried to explain why children (and adults) enjoy playing. So I started to interview people who played music, climbed mountains, played chess or basketball, and so on, and asked them to describe what they felt when they were doing what they liked to do. Many of the interviewees described their feeling as “being carried away by a force greater than myself,” or “being in a current,” or “being in flow.” I chose the last of these analogies as being the most simple.

Q: What kinds of activities are capable of producing flow?

A: Certain activities (art, dance, music, sports, etc.) exist primarily because they are designed to produce flow. But the real challenge is to transform activities that are difficult to enjoy (work, study, cleaning the house, cooking, etc.) into flow activities, by using the model of arts and games, so that one need not wait for leisure times to enjoy oneself.

Q: How does finding flow help people live a more fulfilled life?

A: As I continued to study this phenomenon, it became clear that some people experienced flow in their work, in their relationships, while ironing shirts or mowing the lawn. It became clear that if a person can experience it in many aspects of their lives, the quality of that person’s life is going to be a great deal better.

Q: Is flow something experienced by only a small percentage of the population?

A: Generally about 10-15 percent of the people surveyed don’t seem to know what flow is; the same proportion claim to experience it every day.

Q: You’ve said that most people live at two extremes. What are those extremes and why do people live like that? Why aren’t people more physically and intellectually active?

A: They tend to be either too stressed or anxious because they feel the challenges of their lives are overwhelming; or they are apathetic and bored because they feel there is nothing interesting and worthwhile to do. The fact is that just “vegging out” on the sofa watching a rerun can be mildly relaxing, and it requires much less effort. Flow is certainly not the only motivator in our lives, but it can potentially make our lives richer and happier.

Q: What are your top tips for attaining flow?

A: Keep track of what you enjoy doing, or what you always wanted to do but didn’t, or what you loved to do as a child but gave up on, and find some time to do it. If it doesn’t work, look for something else you might enjoy. Only by experimenting will you know what is most likely to provide flow for you.

Eventually you should be able to transform activities that are not enjoyable into flow-producing activities. For instance, if you hate cleaning house, you might begin to set clear goals for vacuuming, etc., then start trying to increase your skills in it, and do a job that is excellent, effortless, and quick. As you keep cleaning, pay attention to the feedback: Is the cleaned part noticeably better looking than the part still to be cleaned? Are your cleaning skills improving – e.g., are you getting the job done faster? If you take control of the activity and try to improve your performance, you are likely to begin enjoying even a seemingly routine activity.

Q: What is the difference between flow and happiness?

A: When you are in flow you are too busy acting and experiencing to evaluate what you are feeling in the moment. It is after you are finished that you look back and say: “Wow, that was fantastic. This is how life should always be.” Whether this is happiness or not, you make the call.