Opening a door that floats in the sky: Finding the flow state

When was the last time you found yourself in a flow state?

A time when you were just lost in the act of doing, blissfully unaware of anything apart from that which you’re doing?

If you’re fortunate, you will experience it often, but if you’re like most people, there are perhaps a handful of occasions in your life that you can remember such a sensation.

If you’ve given any thought about what it might be to live a happy, fulfilled and meaningful life, those occasions warrant some attention.

Happiness, fulfilment and meaning lie much less in the things we have or the things we aim to get, and much more in the acts of doing and being.

Yet the unfortunate truth is that so much of so many of our lives are spent on those rails, getting paid for doing stuff we don’t like so that we can buy stuff we don’t want.

Sooner or later, we make the realisation that life does not need to be like this, and the beauty of such an awakening is that it rarely comes too late.

In fact, it usually comes at just the right time, right when we’re ready to embrace it.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-high) is a noted psychologist who rose to prominence for his work on the flow state.

It’s described by some psychologists as “the state of effortless attending”, while in Csikszentmihalyi’s 2004 TED talk (below) he talks about the “completely engaging process of creating something new”.

That’s probably my favourite description. The completely engaging process of creating something new.

But there are others.

In the specific example of a composer he had interviewed decades previously, Csikszentmihalyi quotes a composer whose

existence is temporarily suspended … his hand seems to be moving by itself.

He goes on to cite a poet who described the flow state as:

opening a door that floats in the sky.

And in the context of the workplace, he quotes Masaru Ibuka, the co-founder of Sony, who said his idea was

to establish a place of work where engineers can (1) feel the joy of technological innovation, (2) be aware of their mission to society and (3) work to their heart’s content.

(I don’t know about you, but that type of company is one I’d love to work for.)

One of my favourite YouTube channels is The Nerdwriter, which produced a short video essay on the flow state.

In his interpretation, he says,

The key point is that flow is possible in so many areas of experience — art, science, sports, at work in business or law or medicine — but its vital prerequisite is an extended devotion to craft.

Bruce Lee, in his book about martial arts philosophy, The Tao of Jeet June Do, urged readers to

The shape of water.

The temporary suspension of existence.

Opening a door that floats in the sky.

Creativity.

Craft.

However it can be described, it appears to be a central component of day to day happiness, but perhaps the most wonderful thing about flow is that it’s not just ephemeral, happening by magic when we least expect it and disappearing until its next surprise visit.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s research and modelling, he points out that the flow state can only be achieved when a high level of challenge is matched by a high level of skill. If the challenge is high and the skill is low, we get anxiety. If the challenge is low and the skill is high, we get apathy.

Flow is the place we can aim for, by setting a challenge and in an area where our skill level is high.

In daring to rise to that challenge, we find our flow state, when all consciousness of existence seems to just float away.

In that moment we can work to our heart’s content.

In that moment we can become fully immersed in something that matters, even if it’s just for ourselves and one or two people around us.

In that moment we can be fully happy.

And, I suspect, allowing ourselves to experience that moment of flow state fully will increase our level of future happiness too.

Here’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk: