Last week, we dove deep into one of the pre-requisites to rnter a flow state, i.e. a balance between one’s perceived level of skill and the level of challenge at hand. This week, we will be scrutinizing the 2ror
nd condition that makes Flow possible. This condition is that when involved in an activity, there must be clear proximal goals along with the provision of immediate feedback about the progress being made (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). When both of these conditions are fulfilled, it feels as if one’s experience is unfolding with each and every passing moment.
The Game of Life
Let us take the example of a soccer game in action between two soccer giants. The fact that the starting eleven for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are currently on the pitch plays the role of evidence enough that there is a balance between the players’ perceived level of challenge and perceived level of skill. Of course, there are times when the players face a lot of pressure such as when one team is 2 down with 30 minutes to go or it’s a newly transferred player’s debut game, and in these situations, the player(s) may feel anxious. But on an average, we can say that the reason that they are present in the main squad of some of the most high-profile sporting clubs is because of having a skill level that matches the challenge.
With this challenge-skill level condition fulfilled, we now move on to talk about the 2nd. As Arjen Robben delivers a cross into the box, Thomas Muller is presented with an emergent goal, i.e. to successfully receive the ball, with the next proximal goal being turning the cross into a goal, one way or the other. In the same way, in case the ball was intercepted by Sergio Ramos, a proximal goal emerges out of the activity for him of having to clear the ball away from the goal, be it a short pass to another Real teammate or a long-ball halfway across the field to Cristiano Ronaldo. It may also now be clear that in this case, the very motion of the ball is constantly providing immediate feedback, fulfilling the 2nd condition to enter a flow state. In case Muller was to head the ball in the direction of the goal, the feedback would be the ball going towards the goal and this would sustain his attention. Consequently, a successful goal would be followed by a celebration, a miss with an attempt at another attempt, proximal goals emerging with every action taken and every process completed.
As these goals emerge out of the activity, and the individual receives immediate feedback consistently, the players’ experience is extremely likely to gradually present itself to the player, with the player simultaneously creating the experience itself. Although this may sound paradoxical at first glance, but at the same time it is also one of the defining characteristics of a flow state, i.e. the merging of one’s actions with one’s awareness. One can look at this paradox by relating it to a coin. We cannot look at both sides of a coin simultaneously, but as soon as we spin the coin, when the coin is in the process of spinning, the two sides seem to merge and it is extremely hard to differentiate one from the other. It is also important to note here that this analogy would probably not hold true if one was to simply use a mirror to see both, the heads and the tails.
Where you come in.
Games more often than not tend to be structured in a way that proximal goals emerge out of the activity. However, mundane activities such as dish-washing may not be readily seen as that having proximal goals. But, once again, being mindful of our experience can reveal to us the nuances of everyday life. This process would involve a careful inspection of the activity, noticing every detail of the activity beforehand. This is because mindfulness involves open acceptance and awareness of all sources of stimuli, whereas Flow, on the other hand, requires directing one’s attention solely towards the task at hand. In a case of dish washing, a mindful observation shows us that the proximal goals can be identified as rinsing the dishes, followed by lathering, scrubbing, rinsing again, drying them, and then storing them safely in a cabinet. Thus, at first glance, a number of goals can be mindfully identified.
The water clearing up the soap bubbles on the dish and reflecting a clean surface below is the feedback that the individual is receiving as a sustainable stream of information. If one was to be lost in one’s thoughts, one’s attention would not be very likely to observe the feedback emerging out of the activity. This also goes to show that a flow state is not solely dependent on just the environmental conditions or the individual’s internal mental gymnastics. Rather, entering a flow state relies on both, the internal as well as the external conditions. It is not only what one can, or needs to do, but also how one does it. With an intentionally set intention driving one’s attention to be encapsulated by all that the activity provides, and the two primary conditions required to enter Flow fulfilled, one can experience a state of consciousness that many wish for!
What you have to do!
As mentioned last week, some of you may now have started a journal noting down instances where being involved in your previously chosen activity made you feel bored, anxious, or completely engaged. Keeping the same going for this week as well, we also ask you to jot down a list of proximal goals that you can identify in that activity, and what feedback does this activity provide regarding the progression and completion of these goals. Being aware about what the goals and forms of feedback are may help in receiving clear information about the continuity and progression of the activity, sustaining a flow state. Even though there tends to be a loss of sense of self, the self-emerges more complex at the end of the Flow experience.
Awareness Game of the Week
This week’s awareness game is called the No Intention game (O’Connor, 2016). Ask yourself;
What if I had no intention whatsoever?
But wait, I can only have no intention if I set an intention of no intention. But, how, I can’t…
Sooooo the awareness game of this week is to see how long you can go without having any intention whatsoever. Except of course the intention of not having any intention.
And yes, of course, once again, all you need to play this game is your awareness!
May the Flow be with you!
Keywords: intention, attention, goals, feedback, proximal goals, emergent goals, mindfulness, conditions of flow
Ajit Mann is a Master’s Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 195-206). New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.