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Finding Your Flow – The Coaching Room

This article was based on the 2004, TED Talk, “Flow, the Secret to Happiness,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness


The Root of Happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Europe and was a child during World War II.  It was at that time that he realised how few adults were able to withstand the tragedies of war.  There were not many who had normal, contented, satisfied, happy lives once their jobs, their homes, and their security were destroyed by the war. This is what peaked his interest in understanding what contributes to a life that is worth living.

When Csikszentmihalyi began studying psychology he wanted to understand the root of happiness. About 30 percent of the people surveyed in the United States since 1956 say that their lives are very happy. Even though, during this time, personal income has more than doubled, almost tripled, it has not had an effect on how happy people are. In fact, you can find that a lack of basic and material resources contributes to unhappiness, but the increase in material resources does not increase happiness.


Creativity and Happiness

This lead Csikszentmihalyi to question where in everyday life do people find happiness. He began to look at creative people, such as artists and scientists, trying to understand what made them feel that it was worth spending their lives doing things for which many of them didn’t expect either fame or fortune, but which made their lives meaningful and worth doing.

Csikszentmihalyi shares an interview with one of the leading composers of American music back in the ’70s. The composer describes a state of ecstasy when composing is going well.  At the point of beginning to create, he enters a new and different reality. The experience is so intense that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist. This happens because when you are involved in the completely engaging process of creating something new, you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how the body feels. Your identity disappears from consciousness and existence is temporarily suspended.


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This automatic, spontaneous process of creativity can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique. It has become a kind of a truism in the study of creativity that you can’t be creating anything with less than 10 years of technical-knowledge immersion in a particular field. Whether it’s mathematics or music, it takes that long to be able to begin to change something in a way that it’s better than what was there before. People describe this as a spontaneous flow experience that happens in different realms.


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Conditions of Flow

Regardless of the culture, education, or other factors, there are several conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There is a focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity.  You know exactly what you want to do from one moment to next with immediate feedback.  You know that what you need to do is possible, even though difficult, and a sense of time disappears. You forget yourself as you start to feel part of something larger. Once these conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.


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Scientific studies can accurately predict when you will be in flow, and it will be when your challenges and skills are higher than average. You may be doing things very differently from other people, but it will be when you are doing something you truly enjoy.

Arousal is the area where most people learn from because that’s where they’re pushed beyond their comfort zone into flow to develop higher skills. Control is also a good place to be, because there you feel comfortable, but not very excited. It’s not very challenging anymore, and if you want to enter flow from control, you have to increase the challenges. These two are ideal and complementary areas from which flow is easy to go into.

The other combinations of challenge and skill become progressively less optimal. Boredom begins to be very aversive, and apathy becomes very negative.  In these states you feel that you lack a challenge as you are not using your skills. Unfortunately, many people are stuck in apathy. The largest single contributor to that experience is watching television, the next one is being in the bathroom, followed by sitting.


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Finding Flow Brings Happiness

Understanding the unique challenges of finding our flow is the challenge that many people face.  Too many people live in a state of unhappiness caused by apathy. The true gift is to move out of your comfort zone and find ways to put more and more of everyday life into the flow channel.


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