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Raising Freethinkers had to be the most rewarding collaborative project I’ve ever been a part of. Jan, Molleen, and Amanda each brought something unique and brilliant to the book, underlining how very clever I was to not just write it myself.

Molleen wrote about one idea that was completely new to me then — the flow state described by creativity researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It’s the kind of intriguing concept you’d expect from a guy who decided early on that he wanted nothing more than to understand happiness.

Describing the flow state has been one of his biggest contributions. It’s that feeling we get when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying states we can enter. As I wrote three years ago,

Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as 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.”

It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the 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.

Now I’ve come across a TED talk by Csíkszentmihályi that includes a fantastic new 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 a 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.

Gotta love a naturalistic explanation for insanely cool things. When I’m completely lost in an all-consuming activity — interesting words, eh? — I don’t have enough attention left over to notice that I exist.

I’ve been there, but less and less as I get older. Since Molleen introduced me to flow, I’ve been trying to find activities that succeed in putting me there. In fact, one of my goals before I turn 50 — in 303 days, whatever — is to integrate genuine flow experiences more regularly into my daily life. And I think Molleen’s advice for parents helping kids find flow can apply to us as well:

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…

Yeah, that’s the trick. But it’s a hard thing worth doing.

The full talk

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.