Have you ever sat in a class or meeting bored out of your mind so much that you kept checking the time every few minutes? Have you found yourself hating what you were doing because it was meaningless, mind-numbingly boring, or pretty much the same thing you've seen year after year? If you ever experienced these symptoms and hated them, you might want to know about the opposite feeling- flow.
Flow is that elusive but rewarding feeling that you'll see mentioned in tons of modern psychology and self-help books, but it remains hard to define or predict. Flow states are defined as when a person is totally immersed in a task. When a person is “in flow,” they may not notice time passing, think about why they are doing the task, or judge their efforts. When one is in the flow state, they are not only blissfully happy, but they are busily active, working on something deeply meaningful to them. So often we are worried about the time, what other people think about us, how much things cost, or the 10,000 things that have to get done tomorrow. When you hit flow, all of that shit melts away, replaced by a feeling of fun, mastery, and meaning.
Most of us work a lot, but hard work doesn't always lead to flow. You have to like what you're doing, feel like it matters, and it needs to stretch you to the edge of your abilities. Believe it or not, I feel flow when I'm doing income tax returns. (As a CPA, it checks all of my boxes somehow.) I also feel in flow when I'm writing, because the creative act is the ultimate way for people to express their innermost talents, thoughts and feelings. The father of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I will call him MC from here on), discovered it while watching artists, sculptors and musicians and theorizing what they got out of what they did.
We all deserve to feel that natural high that many call being "in the zone". It can come any time and any place, but to get there we need to have some idea what makes us tick and what holds the highest meaning for us. That part isn't always so easy. Trial and error is the best way to find the most meaningful activities, as long as the error part doesn't discourage us from trying some more. Plus we have to be mindful and pay attention to our surroundings and the tasks at hand to truly appreciate them and find the flow zone.
Here are some tips from MC, the guy who has inspired personal growth gurus for decades on the subject of flow:
I had two experiences with flow this year that were borderline mystical, that inspired me to write this blog entry. In two vastly different environments I tuned into everything around me and felt so happy and connected that I felt like I was in heaven. The first experience was sitting alone in the middle of a pristine Ozark creek as it bubbled around me. Water is the perfect symbol for the flow state, as it keeps moving all the time, shaping the things around it while never losing its fluidity. I sat in that creek for a few hours (in a lawn chair mind you), and it was wonderfully peaceful and meaningful. I've spent a lot of time on beaches and shorelines admiring water, but being right on top of the flow took me to another place.
The second experience was in a surprising place for me- Times Square of New York City. When I entered that bustling place for the first time in decades, it was like I had stepped foot in another world. All around me were giant colorful screens and mobs of people. Most of these people, like me, were tourists, and they all were in awe of the place, with their cameras out and aimed at the sky. Everyone in Times Square, even the cops and the homeless guys, seemed happy to be there and had smiles on their faces. I'm sure it's not always like that, but it was a beautiful evening and everyone seemed in such a good mood. People walked, biked, and drove up and down the streets while mobs of others just stood there and took it all in. Other areas of the city that I took in that week were amazing in other ways, but Times Square for some reason appeared to be the beating heart of flow to the city. (In my home town of St. Louis, it's probably Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals, where I've felt a comparable flow of happiness and connection.)
So what do an Ozark stream and a busy New York intersection have in common? I'm still trying to figure that one out. Obviously both have specific meaning to me, and other people could go to the same places and not feel anything special. Flow remains a mystery to me, but when I notice it, I appreciate it. It makes me feel like I'm where I'm meant to be, doing what I'm meant to do. And that's something we all need every so often.
Find those people and activities that you can truly immerse yourself in. Turn off the distractions that can rob you of flow. And then dive in and see what happens. Once you find yourself losing track of time, your personal problems, and the bad news of the day, you will have some idea of what flow is all about. Then you can use this enlightenment to tackle those personal problems and all the other things that are blocking you from finding more flow in your life.