Stop The Relaxing, Start The Flowing

Csikszentmihalyi view of Flow: the goal is the upper right.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi * passed away this week, with far too little notice, considering he had unlocked the secret to happiness.

Csikszentmihalyi, a sociologist, wanted to study statistically what brought people their own, self-defined “optimal experience.” Like many philosophers, writers, and sociologists, he had noticed a couple of societal paradoxes. First, while lack of resources created unhappiness, merely gaining those resources didn’t lead to happiness. How can that be? Yet, we all know it’s true. Having money, food, or even love doesn’t guarantee perpetual happiness.

There was an offspring paradox, too. When they’re working, most people yearn to relax. But relaxing brings only brief enjoyment and rarely creates an “optimal experience.”

The paradox of happiness, discovered by Csikszentmihalyi. Graphic from Melinda Walker at Pinterest.

Studying What Satisfies

In his groundbreaking study at the University of Chicago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and a team of sociology researchers wanted to learn exactly what led to enjoyment — what they termed the human “optimal experience.” The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) team distributed pagers to a variety of participants, asking the subjects to write down what they were doing and how they felt whenever the pagers would randomly chime. While the initial focus groups were primarily experts in specific fields, such as surgeons, chess masters, or rock climbers, latter test subjects represented dozens of occupations across multiple countries.

What Csikszentmihalyi found was that people across the board were happiest during what he later coined a “flow” state: where they were focused, active, and nothing else seemed to matter. That flow state was achieved most often when people were working.

Note that this wasn’t a theory or based on anecdotes. It was based on thousands of data points from people. And it was not what the ESM expected.

One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment.

—Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience**

Csikszentmihalyi called this leisure/work gap the “paradox of work.”  People’s satisfaction was highest when they were fully engaged, which was most often at work, not at leisure. Across the thousands of people he tested from all walks of life, 60% on average reported being in the flow while at work, while only 10% found that flow their self-reported leisure activities.

Csikszentmihalyi during his TED talk.

Even more curious was that, when the participants were asked at work if they would rather be doing something else, they said yes, they would rather be at leisure. But while at leisure, their own pager responses suggested that they weren’t engaged or particularly happy. Yet they always said they preferred to be at leisure.

Why Is Work More Satisfying than Leisure?

Csikszentmihalyi offered a couple of explanations about this apparent disconnect. One possibility is that the cultural view of work as a burden overrides individual impulses. The word work carries around a lot baggage, a steamer trunk full of negative connotations. People aren’t supposed to enjoy work, despite the fact that, in national U.S. polls taken for decades, over half of the respondents say they enjoy their work.

Another interpretation is that people perceive work as imposed from outside. They may enjoy specific tasks, believing they are “making the best of it” by turning procedures into challenges. However, given a choice, many believe they could have chosen to “work” at something else. They enjoy their work, but not work as a requirement.

Most of all, people often enjoy What They Do. They don’t always enjoy Who they do it with or for. Mean bosses, back-stabbing co-workers, The Corporate Bureaucracy–there are lots of sources of problems at work that have nothing to do with the tasks. Also, when the work itself isn’t enjoyable, it may be because it’s repetitive, not challenging, or constrained by rules that prevent a worker from reaching a flow state. Csikszentmihalyi would argue that it’s not the work–not the task–that’s the problem.

How to Love What You Do

Still, these curious results hold a secret that most of us want to know. How do we create the conditions for flow? Luckily, Csikszentmihalyi was able to boil those conditions down to a simple list of seven components:

  1. Being challenged
  2. With a completable task
  3. That has a clear goal
  4. Having the skills to complete the task
  5. Having a sense of control around the task
  6. Getting immediate feedback
  7. Operating within a structure or rule-based system

Remember that it didn’t matter whether participants were milking goats, playing chess, or working in a factory. Any of those activities could be transformed into an engaging task. Even seemingly mundane activities could be treated as goal-oriented. I am going to walk this lap in under five minutes. I’m going to finish twelve rows of knitting before the news is over. Let’s see if chocolate chips and salted tops will improve these brownies.

For tasks to be completable with immediate feedback, they must be specific. These are not open-ended, long-term, amorphous projects highly dependent on someone else’s judgment. Getting into the flow state occurs when you break up vague objectives into multiple sub-tasks. The end result—the completed project—can be a great source of pride on its own, but satisfaction comes during the completion of the individual pieces.

This view helps us understand the motivations of people who strive at what might seem unrewarding activities. For example, I view pulling weeds as a chore, but I have a colleague who loves spending her free time puttering among her “therapy garden.” In comparison, I enjoy volunteering to do people’s taxes, which many people would consider hideously boring. I enjoy the part about helping people, but I really relish trying to squeeze money—legally—out of the tax code. For me, it’s like completing a puzzle, intellectually satisfying. 

Why Challenge Matters

Challenge is a critical element. Many kinds of pleasure are experienced passively, such as when we listen to music or see a gorgeous sunset, but peak experiences come when we are active and challenged.

The level of challenge is important, too. Challenge has to be balanced by skill. Csikszentmihalyi used the following visual to illustrate this balancing act.

Csikszentmihalyi’s key view of the Flow State

As the diagram shows, when you first learn a skill, you aren’t immediately happy. You make mistakes or get confused by the rules. The challenge is high when skill levels are still low (upper left of the diagram). Whether working at a new job, playing a video game, rock-climbing, or making a new recipe, you may encounter lots of little failures at first. As my mom used to say, you usually have to throw out the first pancake.

When you become more experienced, your enjoyment increases until you’re in the zone (shaded part). You bike up a hill knowing just when to lower the gears, you sew a hem with a nearly invisible seam, or you flip pancakes with ease. However, if all you end up doing is going up and down the same-sized hills, you move out of the flow state. The challenge dwindles, and, at the bottom right, you become bored. In order to return to that sense of enjoyment, you have to add more challenge.

As the diagram moves from left to right, you start adding complexity or mini-goals. Do it faster. Do it more accurately or with less effort. How about climbing a really big hill? What happens if you add fruit or Indian spices to your pancake batter? You move back towards that state where you aren’t quite as proficient, and perhaps a little anxiety sets back in.  You go on shifting between a little anxiety and a little boredom, trying to get back to that middle channel where you are challenged but are up to the task. Staying in the middle means staying in the flow.

I first encountered Csikszentmihalyi’s work five years ago and wrote a few notes about it in an early blog. But it’s had a profound effect on me ever since. I found, for example, that blogging on a schedule made me take the writing more seriously. As a result, I got more out of it. When I read a nonfiction book, if I take a few notes, then I remember more and find the book more interesting. In other words, even attaching goals to leisure activities makes me more satisfied.

I know! It’s crazy! But it’s true and based on a lot of data.

The bottom line is that whatever you do, do it with as much engagement as possible. Relaxing from activity is fine, but only enough to recharge your batteries. Then, go get ’em. And you’ll get back in the flow.

*As this snippet shows, the rough pronunciation of his Hungarian name is “me-high chick-sent-me-high-ee…”

**Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. One of 13 works describing his lifelong research.

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