Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced mee-high chick-sent-mee-high, my friend David Rock told me that, and he is important because he wrote one of my top books The Brain at Work) is another book that stopped me in my tracks. Published in 1990, my copy is old, much dog eared and underlined. The author is more recently widely known as a pioneer in the Positive Psychology arena, and his early work outlined in Flow was required reading for coaches because it was solid research about what makes people feel good. Absent real problems like psychological damage, war or pestilence, people were coming to coaches with the objective of optimizing their existence and more specifically, their time at work. Csikszentmihalyi says that in his studies, when people reflected on their most positive experiences they seemed to share one if not all of these characteristics:
- “ the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.”
- we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.”
- The task has “clear goals and
- Provide immediate feedback
- There is deep but effortless involvement that shuts out the noise of everyday life
- We are able to exercise a sense of control over our actions
- Self consciousness disappears, but sense of self emerges more strongly after the experience is over
- The sense of time passing is altered; minutes can seem like hours, or hours can feel like minutes.” (Harper, 1991, pg. 49)
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory was that to achieve flow we needed to maintain the balance between the level of challenge of the activity, and our skill level – if the challenge is too low, we become bored, if it is too high we become overly anxious. Each individual needs to monitor their own challenge level to keep it optimal to stay engaged.
This rang so true for me, and it was extremely useful in work with clients who were clearly bored, but judging themselves for it, thinking they had perfectly jobs and should be happy. Not so! To stay in Flow, it is critical to constantly be raising the bar. This is not totally true for everyone all the time, but for some people, some of the time, the model is extremely useful.