When was the last time you immersed yourself in an activity and completely lost track of time? Your whole being immersed, your emotions energized, firing on all cylinders, aligned solely in deep focus on one activity -- exclusively? In the zone, on a roll, in the groove, wired in, on fire, in the moment, in tune -- experiencing total engagement with absolute concentration?
The artist at the easel, the photographer in the dark room, the potter at the wheel, the scientist behind the microscope, the rower sculling, the guitarist jamming, the reader glued to the page-turning novel, the Olympian chasing it down; all experience a single-minded captivation.
Think back to when you were a child. What was your favorite lose-all-track-of-time activity? I'd take a basin of bubbles and water out to my front lawn and create zillions of bubbles, feeling spontaneous joy -- even rapture -- for what must have been hours (or until the bubbles finally fizzled). Whatever takes you there, it's a delightfully freeing feeling, and researchers find this state immensely rewarding to one's well-being.
In his work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Mee-high Chick-sent-me-high-ee), the former head of psychology at the University of Chicago, outlines his theory of the flow state as "an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, characterized by a feeling of great engagement, fulfillment, and skill -- and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored." In the context of the domains of well-being -- positive emotion, engagement, relationship with others, meaning and purpose and achievement -- we can think of Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory as a contributing factor to the engagement domain.
These days, I experience a flow state when indoor cycling. The steady sound of friction generated from pedaling the 40-pound flywheel at what feels like light speed, in a full studio of riders, forming a peloton in flight drops me into flow. The place I go in my mind state and in my body is largely indescribable; I loose self-consciousness. I'm in my zone. Action and awareness merge, I have no inner critic, I'm liberated from worry of failure, my whole being is involved, I'm using my skills to the utmost, time flies and every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. It's a powerful experience of human vitality.
Flow takes place at the intersection of challenge and skill, blazing its trail in between the conditions of anxiety and boredom. If the challenge is too great vs. the skill, anxiety builds. Conversely, if an activity is not challenging enough, we experience boredom -- both scenarios prohibit the action of flow.
In an interview with Wired, Csíkszentmihályi describes the hallmark of flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake." It represents harnessing the emotions in service of performing and learning. System of checks and balances are totally in tune. And the most advantageous result is it returns energy to the system. Hence, flow promotes well-being. Attention and intention are in perfect alignment. The experience becomes autotelic -- the activity actually becomes it's own reward.
If we're using our strengths, the flow state is more readily acceptable, magnified in intensity and longer in duration. Biophysical research by de Manzano, Theorell, Harmat and Ullen on the psychophysiology of flow during piano playing found that classic pianists who played piano pieces several times over can drop into a flow state. The pianists experienced decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate and relaxation of major facial muscles. They described effortless attention and documented physical relaxation. The effort expensed by the human organism actually decreased, while the outcome improved.
In the workplace, Microsoft, Ericsson, Patagonia and Toyota have identified the concept of flow as a business optimizer, creating workplace environments conducive to flow, boosting productivity and quality of customer interactions while designing a more satisfying employee work experience. Former Patagonia CEO Michael Crooke, Ph.D., applauded the theory of flow many years ago, equating it to success in team building and crediting it to his flourishing as a Navy Seal. He said, "When you get a high-powered team together and you really get into a zone, you'll synchronize."
Jim Clifton, CEO of the Gallup Organization says, "People with high flow never miss a day. They never wreck their cars. They never get sick. Their lives just work better." Clifton reports flow as one ideal outcome of Gallup's consulting work. He sends an email to more 1,000 employees every day asking them to rank their positive energy level on a scale of one to five, assuming when someone hits a five, they're in flow.
So why is this important? Evidence-based research in the field of positive psychology supports flow as a positivity principle of well-being. That's a good thing. And, that's my passion at A Zestful Life -- it also gets my "flow-jo" on -- to serve and support motivated people in this worthy and vital quest.
I love being in flow. I relish the freedom of all external thought. I love when time is irrelevant, when nothing matters other than the object of my sole focus, and I enjoy the personal satisfaction of achievement -- matching my skill to the challenge.
As for your flow-jo -- turn off your pings and phone alerts, put your email on hold and carve out time to partake in your flow and reap your return on investment!
Get deliberate. Get inspired. Get going. Get flow-ing!
Please share your comments:
What activity drops you in to flow? What does flow feel like for you? What's your strength(s) in motion when you're in flow? How might you increase your opportunities to experience the rapture of flow?
Follow Nancy Sherr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@NancySherr