Go With The Flow

Go With The Flow

Words: Paribha VASHIST

A question has intrigued philosophers since the dawn of time, “What constitutes a ‘good life’?” Socrates and Plato emphasised on righteousness and moral ethics. While Epicurus believed that experiencing pleasure was tantamount to being happy, Aristotle proposed a ‘middle path’ that integrated moral values with material well-being.

For Aristotle, a good life was one in which a person exercised their rational faculties by engaging in scientific inquiry, philosophical discussion, artistic creation, or legislation.

With the advent of scientific research, a field of study called ‘positive psychology’ has now emerged and gained solid ground. It concerns itself with the question of what makes life worth living. Pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has played a pivotal role in establishing its foundational principles.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [‘Me-high chick-sent-me-high;’ yes, that is how you pronounce his name] popularised the ‘flow state’ and made it a part of politics and pop culture.

He showed that anyone with the right technique, whether an artist, or assembly-line worker, could be transported to a “state of focused contentment.”

He aptly describes ‘flow’ as a state of mind, a level of concentration in which outside stimuli, or even time itself, seemed to fall away. All that mattered was the ‘moment’ and the ‘process,’ when individuals were most productive.

Now, if you are motivated to ‘untap’ your creative potential by entering into the ‘flow’ channel, just latch on to the following pointers.

Balance Challenge & Skill.

Immerse yourself in an activity that is challenging, but not beyond your capabilities. This could take the form of learning a new music piece, if you play an instrument, or reading a novel with a twisted plot — the possibilities are endless.

To decipher what stimulates you mentally, you need to do some self-reflection. Think along these lines. What interests you? What are you passionate about? Is there a task that you enjoy doing because it pushes you to your limits?

For Csikszentmihalyi, it was chess. A Hungarian adolescent, who was interned by the Allies after World War II, Csikszentmihalyi realised that chess allowed him to transport into another reality. While he engaged himself in playing chess, he lost all track of time and the world seemed to ‘fall away.’

This is what he felt — ultimate ‘ecstasy.’ Not only did it shield him from harsh times, but it also allowed him to be truly contented. Chess gave him his ‘fine balance’ between challenge [developing strategies] and skill [having the interest and potential to predict the opponent’s moves].

Csikszentmihalyi often cites the example of Red Indians in the Shuswap region of Canada to explain how the ‘flow state’ was a part of certain cultures.

Living in a resource-rich region, the Indian natives had the perfect environment to settle in one place, yet they preferred to move to a new location every 25-35 years, because it allowed them to explore and surmount unseen challenges.

Well, it is important to note that obtaining the optimal balance state, in today’s complex, turbulent world, is not easy. If the task becomes too difficult, it creates unnecessary stress and anxiety, but if it is relatively simple then there is no satisfaction to derive from it.

For instance, trying to solve a mathematical problem which involves calculus, without knowing its basics, would really demotivate you. Binge-watching shows on TV, or endlessly scrolling through social media sites, likewise, would not in any way stimulate you — mentally.

So, in short, to achieve a ‘flow state,’ try to find an activity that brings, or strikes, the right balance.

Conscious Commitment.

Consider an interesting observation: the income of people worldwide has increased over the years, but this has not resulted in a proportional increase in happiness. Why is this the case? One reason could be that happiness cannot be determined solely on the basis of material gain. In fact, happiness is all about having the right mind-set.

As Csikszentmihalyi explains, “A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is happening ‘outside’ just by changing the contents of consciousness.”

You get the point: happiness manifests through committed effort and self-evaluation. He adds, “When the self loses itself in a transcendent purpose — whether to write great poetry, craft beautiful furniture, understand the motions of galaxies, or help children be happier — the self becomes largely invulnerable to the fears and setbacks of ordinary existence.”

Intrinsic Motivation 

The motivation to develop the ‘flow’ state should be intrinsic. A fire from within, not just fire in the belly, should ignite our consciousness — this is the only way to realise Aristotle’s’ eudaimonia, or self-actualisation.

When our source of motivation is external, we constantly depend on validation and immediate material gain to be content with ourselves; however, this does not sustain in the long-run.

The bottom line is obvious — if you want to achieve a state of maximum happiness, at any point in time, just go with the ‘flow state’ in mind, and you are already halfway there.

PARIBHA VASHIST is a first-year Bachelor of Economics student at Gargi College, University of Delhi, New Delhi. A voracious reader and a naturally gifted writer, Vashist is zealously passionate about international economics, environmental policy and sustainable development. She wishes to effectively disseminate, in her own simple, yet profound way, scientific knowledge and policy tools to bringing about a positive, healthy change in our increasingly madding world.

8 thoughts on “Go With The Flow

  1. Saroj Thakur says:

    In the throat-cutting, maddening state of our so-called successful life we have lost connection with ‘flow state,’ which brings happiness. It is the process, the journey, of any creative process that brings happiness; and, not necessarily the outcome of the process. When one immerses in an activity that one enjoys, it makes life worth living for, but the big question is: do we, or can we achieve all this when Maslow’s law ‘contends’ that we are so immersed in fulfilling our basic needs of safety, security and other ‘essentials?’

    • Paribha Vashist says:

      Yes! Maslow contended that individuals must satisfy their lower deficit needs before progressing to meeting higher level growth needs. However, as he subsequently redefined his view, he stated that the hierarchy “is not nearly as rigid.” He also pointed out that most behaviour is ‘multi-motivated’ and noted that “any behaviour tends to be determined by several, or all of the needs simultaneously rather than by only one of them.” It is, therefore, possible to achieve the higher goal of ‘self-actualisation,’ even when we are more concerned with fulfilling our basic needs of safety, security and other ‘essentials.’ Consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s example: “Even when there was no guarantee of his survival [safety] in the harsh times of World War II, he was able to achieve the flow state [and be happy] when he played chess.”

  2. Charu Rishi says:

    Very well written, Paribha. Sometimes while working, we sometimes ‘zone out’ everything else and lose track of the time. I guess that’s also flow. Am I right?

    • Paribha Vashist says:

      Thank you so much. In my opinion, ‘zoning out,’ would come under the ambit of the ‘flow state’ only when it concerns itself with thinking about critical problems, or creative endeavours. In such a case, a reverie that brings us joy could also be considered a flow state. However, if we are brooding over past actions, or procrastinating about the future in our ‘zoning out’ phase, then that would certainly not be a ‘flow state.’
      Hope this answers your question.

  3. Subhash Sharma says:

    A well-articulated, interesting and thought-provoking article which explores a possible way out of the existential dilemma of contemporary life. Loved reading every bit of it. Keep up the good work.

  4. Dr G D Vashist says:

    To enjoy a good life is a basic human instinct. However, most people fail to achieve happiness because they lack the art of managing the environment in which they live. Paribha Vashist has rightly suggested that, in order to achieve the flow state, one needs to find an activity that strikes the right balance between challenge and skill through intrinsic motivation. In fact, there are just two ways to be happy: change the situation, or your mind-set towards it.

    • Paribha Vashist says:

      Thank you for articulating it so well. Your kind words are always an inspiration; they motivate me to write 🙂

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