Have you ever felt capable of anything at a given moment in your life? Ever experienced a clarity in your resolve that you thought was never humanly possible? If your answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then you probably lived through a Flow experience.
According to Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the concept of Flow – or optimal experience – is linked with a feeling of deep enjoyment, flourishing creativity, and a total acceptation of life at a specific moment.
In other words, when experiencing Flow, you won’t be concerned about anything but the present moment, and your worries for the future or regrets from the past won’t impair your actual experience in any way. This also links to a concept that has been taken up by another famous psychologist, Eckhart Tolle, in his book “The Power of Now”.
I’ve been interested in the science behind the optimal experience for a while now, and recently finished reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book on the matter.
I was lucky enough to experience Flow in my life a few times, and always found extremely fascinating when I managed to break through that veil. I remember a clear feeling of excitement and a rush of adrenaline flowing through my body as the awareness of my cognitive abilities increased.
I was not quite sure of what was happening back then, or how to define the experience, but I remember it occurring regardless of the outside circumstances surrounding me.
I have noticed Flow within my daily life when preparing for some exams at university for example. My memory skills were so focused I would learn an enormous quantity of information in an extremely short time. I felt genuinely happy then, and the more I learnt, the more confident I felt and the more my ability to memorise increased. It was short-term memory, of course, but it served the purpose, and it was a joyful experience in its own right.
And in fact, the link between Flow and an increase of cognitive abilities is real, as explained in a 2004 study by the PubMed website. The article particularly focuses on results of athletic performance, writing, and free-jazz improvisation, and underlines “the effortless information processing” linked to the flow state.
On a funny note – and to reinforce the idea that Flow is often not connected to outside conditions – there was this one time while I was preparing for a tough assignment and I felt the urge of putting on some classical music while revising. I was going over the text out loud and didn’t realise the music was so loud. My mother walked into the room with a baffled look -interrupting the “Ride of the Valkyries” by Wagner at full power – asking “what are you doing”? I remember laughing back then.
But those were not the only times I experienced Flow in my life. When I first moved to London I had to reinvent myself. I am originally from Italy, and upon coming here I had to rediscover my role in this city and – more broadly speaking – in the world.
As you can imagine, relocate to a new country is surely exciting, but it also pushes you to develop a new set of skills, both social and personal.
A dear friend of mine has been living in China for the past two years. When he got there first, he did not speak a word of Chinese, so he had to rely heavily on his social skills and endure a couple of tough months where communication was extremely hard. He did not surrender and now he has a good, stable job and is moving further up in his personal career.
I am mentioning him here because I believe that, consciously or not, he always “went with the flow” in his life. He went through so much, always with a cocky smirk on his face, and even when close to the brink of despair, he always lived in the moment and pushed through.
I can’t say my experience of moving to the UK was as hard. However, I must acknowledge that during my first weeks in this new country I too experienced some hardships. From looking for a house and a job to figure out my next career steps, it all felt overwhelming at times.
The Flow episodes I had back then kept me moving. I experienced such clarity at times that I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Sometimes I even felt I knew a certain person was going to show up or a certain event would happen. I know it may sound unrealistic, but that is how I felt and, according to an article on the flowskills website, clarity of purpose is one of the main elements of Flow.
Up to now, I have talked about this mental state as something occurring mainly in a casual fashion and without any apparent reason. Can it be mastered tough?
In my case, I managed to experience Flow only in times of great pressure. When I was close to important deadlines, when making important life decisions and so on. I never really consciously entered a Flow state of mind.
On a negative note, if you’re not one of those people who manage to consciously achieve Flow, you may feel a bit weird once the experience is over. When the excitement subsides, you might feel disappointed that your cognitive abilities have returned to “normal”, and it could be a while before you experience that again. I remember that sensation clearly, and it can be quite discouraging sometimes.
However, according to DaringToLiveFully among others, it is possible to rationally experience Flow. The process would start by finding a challenge that fit your current skillset. A task too hard would make you feel disappointed in not achieving it while an excessively easy one would make you bored.
After having established a clear goal then, you would fragment it in sub-goals, giving yourself a reasonable amount of time to achieve every step.
Throughout the whole process, you should keep an open mind and try to block out all distractions, gently guiding your mind back to the task at hand every time you feel it starts wondering.
I have tried these steps once a day for the past week and with different tasks, but even if at times I have experienced a good increase of my focus and attention span, I can’t honestly say I ever reproduced the feeling of Flow to its fullest.
Even cutting out all distractions when performing certain tasks and giving myself a decent amount of time for each, I didn’t feel a substantial increase of my cognitive abilities, or that thrill of adrenaline coming from a complete Flow state.
Overall, I can say that my awareness of “optimal experience” has surely grown after these readings and mental exercises, but I strongly believe the road to fully master Flow is a long and arduous one. One that could, potentially, take your whole life to achieve.
In the meantime, I think we should try and be more aware of our hidden potential. Flow is an incredible state of mind that truly shows one’s inner capabilities, and is one that, once experienced, is really hard to let go.
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