You’re playing the piano, or working on a car, or reading, writing, gardening, programming, gaming, or cooking—something you’re really good at and enjoy. Suddenly you look up at the time and realize that hours have passed without your awareness.
You’ve just experienced a flow state—when you’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand, that you lose track of time. If you’re really lucky, you’ve found an activity that puts you in flow on a regular basis.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is a creativity researcher who wanted to understand happiness. Describing the flow state has been one of his biggest contributions. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying states we can enter, a kind of peak experience.
Csíkszentmihályi (“chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just like it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”
Descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) parallel descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation. Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say “I’m flowy, but not religious.”
A TED talk by Csíkszentmihályi includes a fantastic wrinkle: When we refer to “losing ourselves” in a project or activity, there’s actually something to that. Csíkszentmihályi offers an example from a 1970s interview he came across with a leading American composer. When his composing was going well, he described it as an “ecstatic state” so intense that it felt almost as if he didn’t exist.
“That sounds like a kind of romantic exaggeration,” said Csíkszentmihályi,
but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t understand more than two people talking to you.
When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended.
In other words: When you’re lost in an all-consuming activity, you don’t have enough attention left over to notice that you exist.
Ever since my Raising Freethinkers co-author Molleen Matsumura introduced me to flow, I’ve been trying to integrate genuine flow experiences more regularly into my daily life and help my kids do the same. Her advice for parents about helping kids find flow includes a caution against getting in the way:
Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.
Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible.
I winced when I first read that. How to manage the inevitable conflict between structure and flow is something that parents of creative or non-conforming kids especially need to think about.