‘Flow’ and The Pursuit of Happiness
Rua (Paul Gleeson) is the star of TG4’s ten part magic, mind reading and escapology TV series ‘Draíocht’. He co-curated Science Gallery Dublin’s ILLUSION exhibition in 2013, and also had a sellout 4 star show in the Dublin Fringe Festival. A student of magic history and the psychology of illusions, he is regularly hired to perform and speak for companies and Universities across Ireland. He has been featured on RTE’s The Saturday Night Show, TV3’s Morning Ireland, the BBC and every major radio station in Ireland. Rua has a BA and Masters degree in Communication studies from DCU, and currently makes a living performing Close-up magic at Weddings, Corporate Events and Private parties across Ireland, Europe and US.
2014 is here, and I’m sure all of you have dreams and goals you want to achieve this year! Let’s make it a good one! In this blog post I wanted to quickly share an interesting psychological theory with you which I’ve been studying for a while, based on a mixture of positive thinking, NLP, a cool little idea called ‘Flow’ and of course, the pursuit of happiness! If positive attitudes and happiness aren’t your thing, you should probably stop reading from this point!
One of the world’s leading experts in the field of positive psychology, happiness and creativity is a Hungarian Psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (what a name! It’s pronounced Mee-hy Cheek-Sent-me-hy). Though he’s renowned for numerous ground breaking research studies, as well as for having more vowels in his name than anybody else, he is most famous for his thought-provoking book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’. So what is ‘Flow’ ? Mihaly describes it as
” The State in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it “
Mihaly’s research into ‘Flow’ began in 1975, after he became completely fascinated with artists who literally got lost in their work. The artists he observed often times became so immersed in their work that they would disregard the need to eat, drink and sleep. Mihaly became so enthralled by this incredible phenomenon that he began researching it, to discover whether it could be harnessed or not. Although he was the first to actually research the idea, ‘Flow’ has been experienced across cultures throughout History. Many experts believe that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel whilst in a state of Flow, because it was reported that he would paint for days on end without stopping for food, water or sleep until his body gave in and he passed out. After this he would re-awaken and immediately begin painting again. This was all done while he experienced terrible back pain because of the angles at which he was painting from.
Taoists and Buddhists have theorized similar ideas to Flow, and Bruce Lee even hints at Flow in his seminal book ‘Tao of Jeet Kune Do‘…”Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water“. A more up to date example off the top of my head is Beyoncé, who states that she once neglected to eat for 3 days because she was working so intensely on simultaneously making a film and recording an album. So let’s break it down and look at the six factors that Mihaly states must be combined together to achieve a state of flow:
1. Intense and focused Concentration on the present moment
2. Merging of action and awareness
3. A loss of reflective self – consciousness
4. A sense of Personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as ‘Autotelic’ experience.
While most of us are likely to have experienced all of these states at one point or another, we very rarely experience them simultaneously. However, improvisational musicians, Formula One Racing car drivers, Athletes, Gamers and even Poker players are believed to regularly enter into a state of Flow, or at least Flow by a different name: ‘in the Zone’, ‘the Inner Game’, ‘Playing the A Game’, ‘Dead Stroke’, ‘Wired in’, and ‘In the Pipe’. Mihaly theorizes that we can enter into Flow only when we are highly engaged in an activity, or as he puts it ‘Performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes’. The Conditions of Flow, are as follows:
1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
Although it was originally theorized that a state of Flow can only be entered whilst performing an activity, today, theorists, self helpers and practitioners of Neuro Linguistic Programming are encouraging people to approach the goals in their life with that same sense of determination and focus. It’s actually the basis of the NLP model of communication. Obviously this is a highly desirable state for any of us mere mortals to exist in, and that’s why Mihaly believes that Flow is naturally linked to happiness. Here’s how it works:
The path to happiness, according to this theory, begins with harnessing and controlling the ‘contents of our consciousness’. Sounds a little bit technical right? So let’s break it down!
We use our five senses to process events and experiences in our world, and through these senses, neuro scientists believe that we take in approximately 2 million bits of information per second, which is a really huge amount! So huge in fact that your nervous system can’t handle all of it! So the nervous system sorts through this information, generalizes it and deletes the pieces that you don’t need, then chunks it down to the more manageable size of 126 bits of information. So that’s 2 million bits coming in, of which you’re only processing approximately 126 bits…that’s a lot of information that your nervous system is sorting through and deleting. The question we have to ask is, how can we be sure that we’re getting exactly what we need from those 126 bits, and that we’re not deleting the wrong information?
NLP Expert Chris Howard has a fantastically simple way of explaining this by using the World Wide Web as an example. There is a vast and enormous amount of information on the WWW today. But if you go to Google or another search engine, and you type in the word ‘Health’ (for example), your computer will only pull up results that coincide with the search word ‘Health’, more to the point, it will only pull up exactly what you’re looking for. Well, your nervous system works in the exact same way, and the idea is that by shifting your focus, you’ll make sure that your experience of life becomes that which you look for.
Therefore, Flow and NLP theorizes that in life, we get what we look for, and our experience of life becomes that which we look for. We all live completely different lives with different experiences of life – for example, some people are incredibly wealthy, whilst others live in terrible poverty. From a subjective reality stand-point take the world of a bodybuilder and compare it with a stock – broker, a Magician, or a Charity Worker – all four live in distinctly different worlds, and the thing that determines their world is where they choose to put their focus at any given moment. In simplified terms, imagine your life is a massive dark, pitch black room and all you have is a flashlight. In one corner of the room is Wealth and in the other corner is Poverty. Imagine if whatever comes into your life depends on where you focus that flashlight.
The promise of Neuro Linguistic Programming and ideas like Flow is that you can ultimately change your experience of the world by changing your focus, and in turn making sure that the 126 bits of information coming in are exactly what you’re looking for in your life experience. By changing your focus, you can change your world.
One of my favorite Psychologists, a guy named Richard Wiseman, carried out an incredible scientific study on ‘Luck’ (The Luck Factor), and discovered that when people who classed themselves as ‘unlucky’ changed their focus and adopted a different attitude towards Luck and embraced opportunity, they actually became luckier in life! Wiseman goes into great scientific detail about how this works, and it’s absolutely fascinating, yet it’s still based on the same notion of changing your focus to change your experience of the world. Derren Brown based his Special, ‘The Secret Of Luck‘, on theories put forth by Wiseman, and changed the attitudes and lives of an entire village in the UK, simply by putting an idea out there which changed their focus!
Now, I know a lot of you will throw your nose up in the air and loudly exclaim ‘BULLS**T’ after reading this. Because of course the specific theory of Flow isn’t supported by ‘hard data’ or scientific evidence…but then again, neither are Psychics, yet it’s still a multi million dollar industry that unfortunate people swear by. What about Religion? Anyway, you get the point! Nevertheless, I personally believe that the theory of Flow, through various research studies, illustrates how various individuals across the globe create meaning in their lives, that achieve an ongoing state of satisfaction and get an incredible sense of fulfillment from whatever it is that they do, by changing their focus and ultimately their destiny. And that sounds pretty awesome to me! We haven’t even scraped the surface of Flow, but if you like what you’ve heard, pick up the book! Or, watch Mihaly’s TED talk here:
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments of our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments of our lives usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary moment to achieve something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal existence is thus something that we make happen. For each person there are thousands of opportunities and challenges to expand ourselves”.
To close, I’ll leave you with this clever advertisement for the Wall Street Journal, which shows two babies separated at birth. One is given a magazine about fishing while the other is given a copy of the Wall Street Journal. Of course, one grows up to become a fisherman, and the other becomes a successful businessman. Now I highly doubt these adverts were scripted to highlight the notions of Flow or in relation to NLP, but it unintentionally illustrates the idea. All in good fun!Wall Street Journal Advert 2000
Image: Wiki Commons