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.