The ‘Flow state’ : Secret to real happiness

Have you ever really asked, “what is happiness, really?” Will the things that you are chasing (if any) give you real and lasting happiness?

If you think carefully, soon you will see that lasting happiness cannot come from external sources. If I win a million dollars lottery, it will only make me happy for a short period of time. Yes, my lifestyle may change, I may live in a bigger house and travel the world more often but it will not make much difference in the quality of life. As long as it feels new to be a millionaire, I enjoy it. When it becomes a routine, I would become same as before.

You must have seen that new things excite you at first. But as soon as they become routine, all excitement will fade away. I dare to claim that no material things will improve your life quality. This post is about looking a bit inward, understand what inner happiness is and how it occurs.

This post is my summary of the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It talks in detail about what happiness is and how flow state contributes in one’s personal growth and quality of life.

The Flow state

I bet in your life there were various moments when you were so involved in some activity that you forgot everything else. Sense of time and self was distorted and when it was over there was inner satisfaction for what you had done. In psychology this state is called ‘flow’. It is common for athletes, chess players (like me 🙂 ), musicians, artists and all people engaged in creative activities.

Whenever the goal is to improve the quality of life, the flow theory can point the way.

‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The word ‘Quality of life’ is important here. Flow has nothing to do with material things you have. You have thought enough about getting this and that. Now look more into what you are! State of flow is all about ‘inner satisfaction’, which no-one can ever take away from you.

When your happiness depends on external things or people, you are dependent on them. You are a slave. But what can make you unhappy ever if the primary source of your happiness always within?

Order in consciousness

What ‘flow’ state does is that it brings order in your mind which otherwise becomes chaotic if left by itself. What do you do in your free time? You usually find something that occupies (in reality distracts) your mind, so that you don’t have to deal with the chaos that your thoughts will unleash upon you. Read the paragraph from book below:

We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel psychic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other by themselves without a hitch. After sleeping we regain consciousness in the morning when the alarm rings, and then walk to the bathroom and brush our teeth. The social roles culture prescribes then take care of shaping our minds for us, and we generally place ourselves on automatic pilot till the end of the day, when it is time again to lose consciousness in sleep. But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness—a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

Usually you turn on T.V. or do something passive that will stop this psychic disorder from taking place. But it will not help you grow in any way. Don’t you see how many different ways have we invented so that we don’t have to face our own mind? Moreover, today social media makes it far more easy to waste time. You have free time, you open Instagram, occupy your mind with what other people are doing.

Therefore it is important to will your mind into activities that help your mind grow. It is difficult to do so because anything done to grow is more painful, and it is much easier to turn on T.V. than to take up any challenging task. Order in consciousness needs to be achieved but with it, your mind must grow and become more complex.

Conditions of Flow state

So when does flow state occur and how can you consciously make it happen? Here I am pointing out briefly the conditions required to achieve the state of flow which will give real satisfaction and contribute to your mental growth.

1.) It occurs when we confront the task which we can complete

I read somewhere that there is an enormous difference between completing a task ‘95%’ vs. completing it ‘100%’. Totally completing the task gives a sense of completion and satisfaction far more than even if a little bit is left undone.

2.) Concentration

Flow experience doesn’t occur if you are unable to concentrate on a single task for a period of time. It is obvious because if you get distracted too often, you don’t have the deep bond, the one-ness with the task at hand.

3.) A task which gives proper challenge and requires some skills

If it is not challenging it will not help you grow. Challenging tasks require you to display your 100% skills, which improve your ability to do it. In turn, you can take on higher challenges and exercise your skills at a higher level.

Complexity of personality

When the right mixture of challenge and skills is taken, the only result that can happen is growth. An important outcome of engaging into flow activity is that the mind of a person becomes more complex. Take for example below diagram:

Challenge-skills and state of flow

The white patch is the proper combination of being in the flow state. Consider a chess player who is at A1 level.

  • Suppose he plays an opponent who which is too challenging for him, lets say A3 level. Soon the player will become anxious because he can’t meet up the challenge. As a result, either he will give up chess, or if he wants to enjoy chess again, he must improve his skills, which will take him to position A4, which is a more complex level of game.
  • Suppose The player is at A2 level of skills and at A1 level of challenges which is too low for him, he will soon become bored of playing. If he wants to enjoy playing chess again, he will have to take up higher challenges, which will take him again to A4, again a more complex state of flow

4.) Clear goals and feedback

To enjoy the activity for a longer time, clear goals and feedback is important. This feedback can be very subtle. For example, for a chess player, it is simply pleasurable to see how his position has improved from a few moves back. It is a kind of feedback that lets one know whether he is going correctly or not.

5.) Losing a sense of time and sense of self

State of flow gets you out of your constant daydream. No matter what you do, your mind is running 24 hours behind the scenes, working to bring out your most pressing concerns in life. Even in your sleep you have dreams about things, people. Your worries and fears don’t even let you sleep peacefully. But when in the state of flow, there are no worries, because there is no sense of self.

When involved deeply into a task with above mentioned points, one loses the track of time. I have played games as long as 4 to 5 hours. I wouldn’t notice what happened in-between. Sometimes when the game started, the playing hall would be full, but when I come out of the game, it would be surprising to see that the hall was nearly empty, how many people were watching your game while you were playing. It was a wonder when the sun had set and light had turned into dark.

How are you using your free time?

By now you can say that your inner happiness or achieving the ‘flow state’ has not much to do with your life situation. Having less money, or any lack of material things doesn’t prevent you from getting into the flow state. On the other hand, having all the material things may not always add to quality of your life.

Surely, having more money gives you more free time. But this free time is only useful if you use it for growth. If free time is spent passively, it will soon lead to dull and meaningless life. This fact will be very clear if you just look around. Technology has advanced so much that comfort is there in most of our lives. But still most of us are miserable, distracting ourselves with parties and celebrations which look good on surface, but all empty from within.

Bring out your creativity

People give up studying and learning after they graduate from college because there are no more exams. You go to office and work to make money and then come home. If everything in your life is now utility. If you do things only because you need to or want to, there is no creativity left in your life. You are already dead from within.

Start doing things which have no purpose at all. Do it just for the sake of doing it. Do it as a challenge and as an opportunity to create. Awaken your soul. That only will improve the quality of your life, or else your life will be just to provide utility, comfort. There will be no creation in it. There will be no life in it.

Wake up, become alive again. It is all within you. No outside help is needed. It is all up to you!

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