Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” out lines one of the central tenets of Positive psychology. He draws a distinction between Happiness and Meaning. The idea of human happiness in our popular awareness seems at times something we experience infrequently, but is generally beyond our reach as human beings. Far too often we associate happiness with “peak” experiences such as the joy one might experience on the grandest of New Year’s Eve celebrations. But what is happiness on a day-to-day basis? Csikszentmihalyi argues that happiness is better understood and accomplished by us mere mortals through the pursuit of meaning, and urges us to cultivate “The Flow Experience.”
All of us have already experienced “flow.” Remember a time when you were so absorbed in a task that time seemed to fly by? Your attention was so focused that five hours may have seemed like 5 minutes as you went for a great run, wrote a paper for school, or completed a job task in which you were highly invested. The flow experience has also been associated with meditation, yoga and martial arts.
Csikszentmihalyi describes the elements of flow as follows. One must achieve a high level of skill capable of mastering a highly challenging task. Accomplishing an easy task will not produce flow, nor will failing at a higher- level task. Thus, one must invest time in developing a high degree of competency at a task one finds interesting, and this requires the ability to tolerate the frustration that occurs during the learning process.
At mid-life, I set a goal of achieving a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the first level belt one is awarded as a beginner. Thus, the goal was not too high or too low. The skill set one must become competent in for basic jiu jitsu requires physical training, learning the rules of the game, positional strategy as well as the techniques of transitions, attacks and defense. At first it all seemed a blur, as I was lost in the action, and it was quite frustrating. As adults we often find it difficult to be once again an absolute beginner! Additionally my ego was a barrier to my learning process. I was more worried about winning and how it would look and feel if I lost, rather than purely focusing on learning the game. In time I understood that real learning required being comfortable with losing. Once I let go of the ego desire of winning, which is to say mastering the game immediately, I was then able to concentrate on developing the skills necessary to be awarded the blue belt.
The art of jiu jitsu itself, when done at advanced levels, appears as flowing motion. I knew I was getting better when I was achieving a sort of mindfulness that was un-self-aware. The passage of time and any ego concerns fell away. I was fully absorbed in sparing without having to think about what I was doing. I had integrated the necessary skill set so that it just came naturally. One move followed another smoothly. I had achieved the flow experience and with it a sense of well being that comes with doing something meaningful to me.
One of the ways I try to help my clients attain a real sense of human happiness is by cultivating meaning in their lives by assembling a number of tasks that produce flow experience. Careers can often provide opportunities for flow. However, work is not our only worth. Many people find flow in learning to play an instrument, helping their children do their homework, or finally finding the time to take up a hobby such as photography or yoga with vigor. Ultimately, human happiness involves finding ways to challenge our selves to lead well-lived lives that provide meaning and an abundance of flow.