Someone recently pointed out that I lead a pretty boring life.
After asking for my favourite moment of the past year, I described being elbow-deep in home-made compost picking out some juicy worms to prepare for my next batch of kitchen leftovers.
The subsequent eye-roll and ‘each their own’-mumble reminded me I probably needed to find a more glamorous hobby. But it also highlighted that when we’re asked to describe our most joyful experiences, most people instinctively feel the need to scan their memories for moments of pure ecstasy.
Like that time when we watched the sunrise on Machu Pichu, or when we were lucky enough to see the polar lights on a trip in the Arctic, or that day we had a foursome in a tipi at Burning Man.
While most of these are sadly still on my bucket list, I’d classify them as ‘rock star’ moments, rather than joyful experiences.
And a life filled with rock star moments alone is bound to lead to intensity addiction – meaninglessly living from one thrill to the next.
But if ecstasy-loaded activities on their own don’t lead to a happy life, then what does?
What makes people feel joyful?
Back in the seventies when pagers were still a thing, one of the godfathers of positive psychology – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – decided to conduct a large-scale experiment. He wanted to find out which life experiences were most likely to lead to happiness.
It involved repeating his name three times correctly into a mirror, and then he’d appear right behind you.
Fine, I made that bit up, but he and his team provided thousands of people from all walks of life with a pager which would go off at random intervals during the day. Once the device started buzzing, participants were then required to score themselves on a happiness scale. They also needed to write down how they felt and what they were thinking about in that particular moment.
The experiment showed that irrespective of nationality, age or gender, there’s a common theme in the type of experiences that makes people feel joyful – one that links a North American car plant worker putting parts together with a seventy-year-old farmer woman in the Swiss mountains milking her cows, and a South-Korean heart surgeon executing a triple bypass operation.
Indeed, what Csikszentmihalyi discovered was that a person is at their happiest when their body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
He called this experience flow.
What does being ‘in flow’ feel like?
The best way to describe flow is to think back of an activity you were so involved with and ‘in the zone’ that time just disappeared. Minutes turned into hours and maybe you forgot to eat, drink or pee.
This is typical when you’re in flow. Your thoughts, feelings and actions are so aligned that you lose your sense of self – that’s how concentrated you are on the task at hand.
Whether you’re crocheting jackets for orphaned penguins, going for a 5k run for the first time without stopping, or putting on the finishing touches on a kick-arse sales presentation in Google Slides – you’re so focused on that one activity that everything feels in absolute harmony.
When you’re in flow, you don’t even realise you’re in it until the experience has passed.
You’re so utterly engaged with what you’re doing that all your mental power and bandwidth are taken up. There’s simply no space for anything else, including self-awareness.
Other conditions for flow to take place
To achieve flow, you first need to be able to get yourself into a decent state of concentration. Ultimately, the opposite of flow is conflict – also known as psychic entropy.
An excellent example of entropy is the fact that it took me seven minutes to finish the previous sentence after getting stuck reading about Joe and Lucie’s romantic shenanigans on Love Island UK while trying to find a cleverer word to describe conflict. I’ve never watched Love Island, and I don’t even live in the UK.
Entropy sounds nice though.
How we deal with distractions depends on the person. Some authors write their best works knocking down a caramel Frappuccino in the local Starbucks, while others – like JK Rowling – need to lock themselves up in a five-star hotel to get the job done. Personally, I’ll write anywhere that serves burgers and doesn’t play Ellie Goulding.
Flow doesn’t come immediately either. Most people take twenty to forty minutes before they can really get into the zone – provided of course they don’t get distracted.
Secondly, for an activity to become a flow experience, there need to be clear goals and direct feedback on how well you’re performing. Without that feedback loop, you wouldn’t be motivated to do it. It would be like playing a keyboard that hadn’t been plugged in or singing without being able to hear yourself. I hope you’re reading this, Ellie.
And lastly, you need to be in control of the activity. Without that sense of agency, you’re only a bystander.
This is why many people fail to have as much flow at work as they’d like to. Even though writing a report to shareholders or a beautifully streamlined spreadsheet ticks all the right boxes, because it often doesn’t feel like a voluntary activity, it may not provide us with a sense of flow.
Complexity versus skill
All flow activities are enjoyable, but not all enjoyable activities provide flow.
Indeed, for an activity to be both enjoyable and flow, your skills need to more or less match the complexity of that activity.
If you look at the two axes of the graph below – challenge level versus skills – you’ll notice a point where the balance starts to tip towards more positive emotions such as arousal, control (or comfort), relaxation and flow. The higher your skill level, the more likely it is therefore you’ll get enjoyment from an activity.
For that reason, to achieve flow you need to encounter a challenge which is testing enough for your skills, and those skills need to be high enough to just about meet the challenge.
The just about-bit is very important. Your skill levels are almost matched, but not quite – so you’re stretching yourself.
Indeed, for flow to take place, there needs to be an element of learning – the activity has to be on the edge of your abilities. If it’s too easy, your mind will wander and you’ll get bored. But if it’s too difficult, you’ll despair and switch off.
This is also why most people don’t enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for too long – they become bored, frustrated and apathetic.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s words: ‘Flow transforms the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.’ - The Psychology Of Flow (1990)
Say you’re a medium tennis player who’s up against an opponent in the next league. It’s possible you’ll get your arse kicked, but because the skill level required from you is only slightly higher than where you’re at, you’re likely to achieve a flow after playing for some time.
Competing against your seven-year-old nephew who spends most of his day playing Minecraft, on the other hand, is unlikely to provide you with the same flow experience. Because of your weak opponent, the complexity of the activity is too low.
Although flow is always an enjoyable experience, it isn’t always a positive experience. Take gaming, for example. Most video games are based on combining increasing skills with heightened complexity as the game progresses. But even though video games can provide a lot of flow after a long day at work, playing six hours straight without leaving the couch would hardly classify as an optimal experience.
Filling life with flow leads to happiness
We often assume that happiness lies in the pursuit of big moments of ecstasy and joy – holding your new-born baby for the first time, stepping into your first home after picking up the keys; catching your first breath after you’ve just jumped out of an aeroplane.
Rock star moments like these are important because they provide us with a strong sense of significance and an awesome reminder of being alive.
But, as Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown, a happy and contented life doesn’t involve chasing one rock star moment after the other. Instead, it’s a life which is filled with experiences where we’ve focused our efforts on something that was difficult and worthwhile.
The challenge to all of us to find or create as many of those flow opportunities as possible.