We can all recall those moments when the task in front of us seemed too challenging, and this made us deeply anxious. On the other hand, we can also recall those moments when we were bored dry out of our minds as we flick through the channels on the television. Studies* have found that even though happiness is not usually reported while people are engaged in passive leisure such as watching the television, motivation to do so is usually high. Additionally, when people are engaged in active leisure activities such as engaging in their hobbies, playing sports, and socializing, it was reported that they were indeed happier as well as equally motivated to engage in these activities.
One of the necessary conditions to enter a flow state is a balance between one’s perceived level of challenge, and one’s perceived level of skill. If we were to differentiate challenge and skill levels as low and high, we end up with four possible combinations, which are high challenge—high skill, high challenge—low skill, low challenge—high skill, and low challenge—low skill. When the challenges are too low in comparison to one’s ability to act (skill level), one tends to feel relaxed, and eventually, bored. On the other hand, if the challenges are too high compared to one’s perceived level of skill, one may start to worry and eventually, feel anxious. In yet another case, when both the challenge and the skill level is low, one feels apathetic. Optimal experiences are usually reported when both, the challenge and the skill level are high.
Let us take the simple example of drawing a perfect circle on a piece of paper. We may start off with something that resembles a scrambled egg, but as we practice more and more, and our perceived level of skill goes higher, we may start to really engage in drawing the circle as our sketches now start to approximate an actual circle. Let us assume that we get to the point where drawing a perfect circle feels like an effortless flick of the wrist. Once we get over the initial thrill, we may start to feel way too relaxed, and maybe even borderline bored. If at this point we were to increase our challenge by moving on to draw an even bigger free-hand circle, we would again be in the process of matching our level of skill to the challenge at hand. As the optimal experience starts to unfold and the act of drawing the circle starts to seem rewarding in itself, it would make us want to engage in this activity over and over again, in order to feel the same sense of reward. This is exactly how the self-perpetuating cycle of development via flow is set in motion, as we are consistently attempting to refine and build upon our skills.
It would not be surprising to know that some of you may not have felt the same way about drawing a free-hand circle. However, the same principle of self-perpetuating personal development can be initiated in the context of any specific task, activity, goal, and even to one’s whole conscious experience. As overcoming a challenge tends to make one feel more skillful than before, and the context in which this occurs is chosen by us which may range from the watering of plants to skydiving, each episode of flow makes a person become “more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 41), i.e. more differentiated. On the other hand, as consciousness tends to be unusually well ordered during a flow experience, one also feels more integrated, in harmony, as “thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 41). It is important to note here that after a flow experience, a person not only feels integrated internally but also with respect to other people, as well as the world as we know it.
This amalgamation of the psychological processes of differentiation and integration results in complexity. Here, we do not refer to complexity in terms of difficulty, but in terms of the merging of polar tendencies of differentiation and integration. A person who is well differentiated but not integrated within the bigger picture may accomplish noble things, but at the same time may also be subjected to self-centeredness. Similarly, a well-integrated, but not well-differentiated person will be connected to the world around them but lack individuality. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “only when a person invests equal amounts of psychic energy in these two processes and avoids both selfishness and conformity is the self-likely to reflect complexity” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 42).
What you have to do!
Last week, we asked you to think about an activity that you wanted to use as your training ground for this challenge course. We now ask you to set aside a specific amount of time for that activity every day. Additionally, this week also involves you putting that journal that you got for Christmas last year to good use! Every time you engage in your chosen activity, note down in your journal about how well your perceived challenge and perceived skill level matched that day once the activity is over. Also, note down how you felt with this combination of challenge and skill level. As you reflect back on your experience every day, you can then tweak the activity for the next day in a way that your perceived level of challenge seems to match with your level of skill.
If you felt worried or anxious, you can lower your challenge until you find the right balance. If you felt relaxed or even bored while the activity was occurring, try making the activity more challenging. Thus, tweaking different aspects of the activity can help you find that sweet spot that makes it possible to enter a flow state. At the end of seven days, look back and reflect on the changes that you made in how you approached your chosen activity day after day, and whether you feel that your skills have sharpened since the time you started last week!
Awareness Game of the Week—Emotion Painting (O’Connor, 2016
– Paint a picture of an emotion by describing it physically.
-Where am I feeling it? In what part of my body?
-What does it look like? What shape is it?
-What color is it?
And yes, once again, all you need to play this game is your awareness!
May the Flow be with you!
Ajit Mann is a Master’s Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I.S., eds. 1988. Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Graef, R. (1980). The experience of freedom in daily life. American Journal of Community Psychology, 8, 401-414.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 815-822.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented teenagers: The roots of success and failure. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kubey, R., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Television and the quality of life. Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Larson, R., & Richards, M. H. (1994). Divergent realities: The emotional lives of mothers, fathers, and adolescents. New York: Basic Books.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.