[Flow is] being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. … Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
The basic idea behind flow is we optimize our happiness by having the right amount of challenge for our talents and skills.
The thing I love about being retired is I have the freedom to choose activities/projects that keep me learning new things and developing new skills — projects that are challenging enough to make me excited to work on them but aren’t so big a stretch that they’re overwhelming. One doesn’t always have that choice when working for someone else.
I knew when I was a kid that I would go bonkers in a boring job — one of my main goals was to develop skills that would give me some choice. So I majored in physics and went into scientific computer programming. Mostly that gave me the chance to pick challenging problems — sometimes a bit too challenging when there were deadlines involved. But I kept reminding myself that I would rather be scared than bored, and that helped a lot. It also helped to remember the joke:
I also learned a lot of relaxation/stress management techniques, including how to ignore the deadlines and thoughts of failure and simply get curious about the problem and play with it. Ignoring deadlines may sound counterintuitive but in fact it was highly effective — our minds tend to shut down when we’re stressed, and it’s tempting to try to escape the tension by procrastinating, distracting ourselves by doing something else. The trick is to figure out how to make the problem fun so we want to work on it.
I didn’t learn to do that perfectly, but I didn’t do too badly either. I still had some anxiety, but I was excited to go to work and wouldn’t have changed my life with anyone.
The trick after I retired was to keep myself motivated without the external pressures and rewards. For me that was a no-brainer. I wanted the joys of flow to be an integral part of my life, and I was going to figure out how to get that, no matter how long it took. So I kept experimenting until I found projects with the right amount of challenge to be engaging. The neat thing is if we keep learning year after year the whole process gets easier and even more rewarding.
Anyway, that’s what works for me. But we’re all different — what works for you? How important is flow in your life? Do you agree with Csikszentmihalyi that flow is the way to happiness? Do you believe that the element of challenge has to be there for you to lose yourself in an activity? When are you the happiest?