Have you ever been in a situation where time slowed down or even stood still? Where every action you commit to is perfect and effortless. When you lose your sense of self and become at one with the activity you are doing. If you have you will certainly remember it vividly.
Most people have achieved these moments fleetingly on a daily basis. Some people have a life full of absorption and fulfilment and seem to flow from one challenge to the next at consummate ease. Others however seem to be always overwhelmed with the stresses of life. This difference is what engaged Bulgarian Psychologist Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi to study the experience of Flow. Csikzentmihayli interviewed thousands of people from every walk of life across every continent in the world. His goal was to find the characteristics of the Flow experience and try to measure why certain people seemed to be in flow more than others. Interestingly 20% of people enter flow states on a regular basis but 15% never do.
His findings give us a fantastic insight into happiness and how people perform at their best. A remarkable finding of his has been in relation to challenge and stress. It is often the case that stress and challenge in our lives is interpreted as a negative emotion and that the associated anxiety can become debilitating. Furthermore, that the best moments in our lives are passive and relaxing times with no worry or concern.
Csikszentmihalyi discovered that this is certainly not the case, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…” in fact he identified that in order to experience flow we need to be challenged and stressed to the point where we make flow happen and become at one with the process, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
The key question then is, how do we make it happen?
There are key prerequisites of the flow experience:
- The sense of time becomes distorted
- There is a balance between challenge and skill
- There is clear goals
- There is no worry of failure
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness
- The activity is an end in itself
- Self-Consciousness disappears
- Action and Awareness are merged
Consequently the ‘Flow’ that is often experienced by athletes can certainly be experienced by executives, leaders and indeed every human being.
In all flow state experience their certainly seems to be a level of stress involved. Psychologists have investigated for centuries the human response to stress. Traditionally they have found two main responses to stress, Fight or Flight. These responses were necessary for our human survival from the beginning of mankind. Originally as hunter gatherers we lived in savannahs and jungles with the constant threat of enemy attack. Lions and other beasts roamed the plains. For humans to survive we needed to become stressed when we saw a potentially threating situation, this flooded our bodies with the necessary cortisol and adrenaline to fight or flight like our lives depended on it. Essentially our lives did depend on it! Without these responses we may not be here today!
In studies on Flow states however they are certainly not experienced by fighting issues, running away from them or freezing to a halt. People seemed to have a completely different response to stress in a Flow state, essentially a positive one.
Could it be that the stress response is an antecedent to flow? That the mind essentially needs to be strained in order to ‘flow’ and think at its best? That the thought patterns emerging from Flow are indeed a consequence of a demanding situation?
After further investigation I discovered that there is a fourth, Submission (Marks, 1987) and a fifth response to stress that the latest science has only began to investigate, ‘Flow’ (Peifer et al., 2014).! Stress is necessary to achieve flow. The optimal state required to perform.
To echo Csikzentmihayli (1990),
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.3)
This finding is a moment of enlightenment for many. Essentially the very state that humans are striving to create is ‘flow’. Inherent in us achieving this joyous and focused state is stress!
A recent study in the journal of experimental social psychology concluded that moderate levels of stress were specifically associated with the flow experience in an inverted U basis (Peifer et al., 2014). Essentially a person to be at their best requires challenge and moderate levels of stress to reach creative solutions in task orientated situations (see figure 1).
From a philosophical standpoint, stress and suffering is an inevitability of life. However our interpretation of stress and suffering dictates our wellbeing on a daily basis. The latest research shows that stress and suffering is not as detrimental as it may at first seem, in fact it is a necessary antecedent to many optimal experiences like Flow.
The key is to find the optimal level of challenge. This is how we grow. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or overstressed remember that every river has its source. Once the source is stopped the river is HALTed. A great practical way to find the source of overstress is to remember the acronym H.A.L.T. Overstress comes from many sources but it often occurs from Hunger, Anger, Loneliness or Tiredness. When you can identify the source then it’s time to do something about it. After all Flow is something we can Make Happen!
Modern society often reflects excess demands and divided attention that causes overstress. The information highway is at our fingertips. Our work demands are increasing. We strive to meet social standards and expectations magnified by social media. Our families require increasing finance and care. In the midst of it all we must remember to H.A.L.T and find an activity or task that we can become totally absorbed in and truly enjoy the presence of life. What can you do today to achieve more flow experiences in the future? How can you cherish the beautiful moments of life? Make it Happen!