Passion and Flow and a Life Changing Book

Aggie Women's Tennis 12 by StuSeeger

Have you ever read a book (and religious texts don’t count—that’s too easy) that you can honestly say has changed your life?  For me, the one book that has changed my life more than any other is “Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that three times fast–hint: it’s pronounced “cheek sent me hi.”) 

The book is based on Csikszentmihalyi’s research on how people felt while doing different activities throughout their day.  He literally had study participants wear beepers and would beep them at random intervals over the course of several months (“experience sampling method.”)  He measured what people were doing and how they felt during different times in their day.

What he found was that people felt their best when they were doing certain activities that helped them to experience what he called “flow”.  Flow is the feeling you have when you are completely engaged in an activity and time seems to fly by.  Different individuals have different activities that they find to be flow-inducing.  One person might experience flow while preparing a gourmet meal, working in the kitchen.  Another person might get it while dancing at a night club.  Art, music, sports, travel and social activities can all induce flow in different personalities.

Csziksentmihalyi found that all of these flow-inducing activities have certain things in common.  People find themselves in flow when performing an activity that is somewhat challenging, but when they feel they have the skills to meet that challenge.  Flow is the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.  An intermediate tennis player, for example, would be completely bored if he was playing against a total beginner who couldn’t even keep the ball in play.  If he was playing against a grand slam champion on the other hand, he would have a hard time returning a single serve and would probably find the experience somewhat stressful.  But when he plays another intermediate player, who is strong enough to challenge him and push his game to its upper limits, where victory is not impossible but not guaranteed either, he may find himself in flow, loving every minute of the challenge and losing all sense of anything else.

When I read Flow, I immediately recognized some of the flow activities in my own life, and learned how to identify other activities that I might equally enjoy.  In large part due to the inspiration from the book, I have filled my life with wonderful activities that I pursue with passion.  Hiking, scuba diving, salsa dancing, guitar playing, surfing and beach volleyball are all flow activities that have brought me countless hours of joy.  I think of these kinds of activities not as pleasantries with which to fill my leisure time, but as a sacred part of my life, the things that make life worth living.

So what are the activities that put you into flow?  What are you passionate about?  Finding these activities and giving them the appropriate value in your life can be the secret to living a life of happiness and well-being.  And if you have read a book that has drastically impacted your life in a positive way, let me know what it is.  I’d like to read it.

References and recommended reading:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

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16 Responses to Passion and Flow and a Life Changing Book

  1. Sara Firman April 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Yes, a great book. I liked also what he has to say about cultivating sensory awareness (p. 33 of the book – The Anatomy of Consciousness).

    ‘The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested….

    Traditional Melanesian sailors can be taken blindfolded to any point of the ocean within a radius of several hundred miles from their island home and, if allowed to float for a few minutes in the sea, are able to recognize a spot by the feel of the currents on their bodies….

    Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness … it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy …. We create ourselves by how we use it.’

    So that, perhaps, when you are doing these things that you love, becoming acutely aware of the sensory elements that contribute to that and of what you do in response to those prompts can enhance the experience of flow.

    After a few years of practicing aquatic bodywork (Watsu) for example, I began to notice responses in my own being that anticipated the response of the person I was floating. I could not easily describe this to anyone but it was invaluable in staying in the flow with that person.

  2. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) April 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Nice! I love the concept of being in the flow. Plus, it is a fantastic feeling! Times I find myself “in the flow” are while practicing yoga, meditating, hiking, reading an excellent book, wakeboarding, scuba diving, writing an article, delivering a presentation or just being very present and aware during “the flow” of a conversation. In these moments I am generally very content, grounded and at peace.

    I’ve read a handful of books that caused some sort of paradigm shift in my thinking, but the two that are coming to mind at the moment are “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman and “The Wisdom of the Enneagram” by Don Riso and Russ Hudson.

    And, I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the audio series that completely changed my thinking “The Psychology of Achievement” by Brian Tracy. I listened to it years ago as an audio CD in my car when I had to commute to and from work a couple of hours a day. It completely changed my approach to life. Even today, I find myself from time to time listening to a Brian Tracy track on my iPod when it’s on shuffle. Each chapter has some kind of gem so it’s kind of fun to see what pops up and how it resonates with me that day.

    Thanks for the review of the book, Jeremy. Now, it’s time to get in the flow of writing!

  3. Jeremy McCarthy April 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Hi Sara, Your comments on attention bring up a fascinating aspect of the state of flow. It is hard for me to grasp the relationship between flow and mindfulness. When you describe becoming acutely aware of the sensory elements of your experience it reminds me of mindfulness which is usually a directed awareness towards the present, “observing the observer” for example. In a state of flow you completely lose track of yourself. So is this an extreme state of mindfulness or the complete opposite? This is a riddle I haven’t been able to figure out yet. But picture the mindful artist or mindful tennis player who is aware of their every stroke, breath and thought while they play, and contrast that with someone who is in flow. The time just goes by and they realize they have not had any conscious awareness of what they are doing. I find this contrast really interesting but haven’t figured out what to make of it yet!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy April 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Thanks Stacy, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior was definitely a game changer for me as well. I never saw the movie, did you? I used to have those same Brian Tracy tapes, be nice to revisit them again! Enjoy the flow!

  5. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) April 21, 2011 at 2:42 am #

    Jeremy, my take on your riddle is this: “the flow” is experiencing high level awareness. It is in this state that a person has an objective view of reality and is full of inspiration living in the present moment. This person has no conscious awareness of their activity in the flow because once she is aware of her awareness, her ego reappears and may stop the flow. When I am playing tennis and in the flow of a good rally, I am not thinking – just being. Once I start thinking, “Wow, I’m in the flow” (or anything else for that matter) I usually mess up my shot because I am pulled away from the pure presence of each moment in action. Re-reading this, it sounds kind of paradoxical (and perhaps esoteric), but I don’t believe we can understand presence with our minds – we can only be it.

    Does that shed any light? Working with the Enneagram has helped me arrive at this conclusion.

    I haven’t seen the movie The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. My memories from the scenes in the book are lovely and the watching the movie may taint my imagination! 😉 That said, it may be time to re-read it. It’s been a few years.

  6. Sara Firman April 21, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    I think Stacey is right – that we cannot understand this experience with our minds, it is utterly experiential. I have found poetry or freeform artwork to be more effective ways to express and share it. Here is a link to a poem in which I tried to articulate what happened when I was in the flow of giving an the aquatic bodywork session:

  7. Jeremy McCarthy April 21, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Beautiful poem. I think you are both right and have helped me get some perspective on this! I guess it is always hard when you are thinking about non-thinking.

  8. Eric Mieles April 29, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    Really great post. Thank you for this one. I honestly can say I have tried to live my life where I’m constantly on the lookout for when and where my flow takes place. I evaluate moments and actions and reflect so that I can record in my mind what has taken place.

    My dream for my life has always been to live each day experiencing flow. I’m 100% sure that it’s not the potential money, promotion or any other type of external reward that can come by chasing some sort of life, it’s the internal peace and joy you feel when having flow.

    I believe our souls long for things and this flow is an energetic connection that seems to satisfy what the soul desires.

    I love this topic so much that I could talk about it for ever. I wish more of us could become perceptive to what our own flow is. Imagine a world of people who strived for flow. Imagine the work that would be created if we all were I “In our gift”. How much would get done? What kind of art would you bring to others and what kind of change could you create if our society flowed every day??

    The book that has changed my life is by Author Seth Godin. He has many books that I have read several times however Linchpin really delves deep into becoming an indispensable leader. An artist and a game changer.

    Thank you for this post. You made my day!!

  9. neeyas shah April 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    good post jeremy and what i enjoyed most is comments by sara,stacey and
    you about this post and experiences relating to the topic

  10. Jeremy McCarthy April 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    Thanks Eric, You made my day too! I’ve heard a lot about Linchpin but I’ve never read it myself. Thanks to you I’m moving it up on my list. Thanks for taking the time to leave your kind comments!

  11. Jeremy McCarthy April 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    Thanks Neeyas, The comments are often the best part! Thanks for digging into them and joining the dialogue. Peace, Jeremy

  12. Eric Mieles May 1, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Anytime. Thanks for a great blog!!

  13. Tolar June 18, 2011 at 3:01 am #

    Lovely post, nice topic. I just read a little about ‘flow’ and was looking for more info on d topic. Your post gave me that.
    Thanks Eric.

  14. Tolar June 18, 2011 at 3:03 am #

    Lovely post, nice topic. I just read a little about ‘flow’ (in a meditation book) and was looking for more info on d topic. Your post gave me that.
    Thanks Eric.

  15. Tolar June 18, 2011 at 3:05 am #

    Lovely post, nice topic. I just read a little about ‘flow’ (in a meditation book) and was looking for more info on d topic. Your post gave me that.
    Thanks Jeremy.


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