[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.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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?

Thanks to Evan, tammy, Cathy, Dixie, bikehikebabe and Rummuser for commenting on last week’s post.
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17 Responses to Flow

  1. tammy j says:

    oh! i like your cartoon! but then i usually like all your cartoons.
    i used to think being a cartoonist would be the best “job.”
    they give the best subliminal messages!
    it’s the oddest thing ~ but i don’t think i have a particular flow. i have to think about that. i hope i don’t seem to be a slug or anything ~ but i live a very unstructured life. being retired for me is one thing … freedom of time space and simply living the moment. i didn’t need deadlines. but always had them in my job. stressors. ugh.
    you and the marine have what i call “the scientific mind.”
    i like to know how things work too ~ to a degree. but usually it is more along the lines “i wonder if the phone wires tickle the birds’ feet when they sit on them.”
    hopeless. no intellect there! but i am quite happy. make that very happy. so something is working somehow! LOL.
    tammy j´s last blog post ..friends in great places

  2. bikehikebabe says:

    I read you Jean. Before I get dressed in the AM, & during the day when I’ve been moving around & not wearing a coat—We keep the heat down in the winter because house is covered with North facing windows. The South faces the street so only high-up windows. What happened to my 1st sentence???
    “…not wearing a coat” so when I get SIT & get involved with my computer, I don’t know I’m FREEZING. I leave the computer & I have to pile on the warm stuff to get some body heat back. 🙂

  3. tammy j says:

    that’s so funny bhb. i’ve done that! i don’t ‘heat’ my apt that much. it’s tiny. and so far holds a comfortable warmth pretty well. i usually wear a comfortable old hoody over a sweater.
    but sometimes i don’t. and i get absorbed at the computer.
    then realize i’m chilled to the bone! glad to know i’m not alone!

  4. Jean says:

    It seems to me getting so absorbed fits the part

    [Flow is] being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. … Your whole being is involved….

    I’m not sure the bit about challenge and talent has to be part of the experience for everyone. You are clearly a happy person and your love of home and family is part of it. I suspect blogging and interacting online helps a lot too. What do you think? When are you happiest? What are you doing, if anything, at the time? (That question is how the concept of flow started.)

    Why do I ask? Because I’m hopelessly curious and I love sharing how we all experience life our own individual ways. That’s why I love blogging. Thank you for your part!

    We don’t keep our house as cold as you do, but I like it cool. I may slip on a warm shirt but I seldom turn up the heat — until poor Andy is about to come home. He likes it closer to 70° I do sometimes forget that I’m cold, and I often forget that I’m hungry.

  5. Evan says:

    I’d put it slightly differently – that being in flow is an experience of happiness.

    There are other kinds too. Sensual delight and indulgence can be pretty happy.

    And just getting absorbed in a topic or problem is another. There is a book about this called The Inner Game of Tennis. The tennis coach got the coachees to just pay attention to what was going on and not getting anxious and stuff and their game improved. Which is about setting aside the challenge.
    Evan´s last blog post ..Illness by Havi Carel

  6. Jean says:

    Yes! I agree that being in flow is one experience of happiness. Actually The Inner Game of Tennis is a great example of flow. The challenge was to learn to play tennis, which the students didn’t know how to do. The method is very much like what I was doing at work — just getting in a play mode, relaxing, trying things, noticing what works and doesn’t work, letting the subconscious mind do a lot of the learning. And that works fine if the problem is at the right level. If Gallwey had matched the beginning students against pros playing their best it wouldn’t have worked. It would have been overwhelming.

  7. Cathy in NZ says:

    I too have options. But some at my time of their life, they are not thinking of doing scholarly activities.

    You might also wonder? The reason is that when I was a young person, I had absolutely not chance of doing such study. You had to a be a top “dog” and because I had fallen through the gaps with my hand/wrist disability – I lost out real bad.

    Life went on, I did lots of things including a period of study in Australia which by rights should have got me a great job in NZ but even that was “cut off” by the ex-DH (he wasn’t ex-DH at the time)!

    Then I was ill for years with a diagnosis that wasn’t quite right but things didn’t change until a holiday with family caused me to visit a medical centre. On returning home, my doctor (ex) got all excited! Over a period of about a year…my life was turned upside down – back to partially normal

    The chance came that I still couldn’t work/job but I could maybe do something else…things dramatically changed on the study front.

    I’m still involved with art certificate but also doing a diploma at University – part time. Whether it is real flow depends…
    Cathy in NZ´s last blog post ..Not much to see!

  8. Rummuser says:

    How important is flow in your life? As defined by Mihaly, it is part of my life. I am almost always in flow except when I have to be in situations due to societal demands.

    Do you agree with Csikszentmihalyi that flow is the way to happiness?
    To the best of my recollection, the idea of flow came to Mihaly when he studied happy people. I flatter myself that by and large I am a happy person and therefore I am usually in flow.

    Do you believe that the element of challenge has to be there for you to lose yourself in an activity?

    Yes. I solve four crossword puzzles every day. I do them in the order of challenge ie, the toughest to crack first and so on. By the time I come to the fourth, I am in full flow and the fourth takes me hardly five minutes.

    When are you the happiest? When I am fast asleep.

  9. Cathy in NZ says:

    Rummuser, has caused me to think another “aha” – I guess 75% of the world at whatever period of their life they are in – are doing at least 50% or more of the time something in the “flow –> happy” line.

    Over the years, that for me as meant, sometimes I’m very happy whilst other times, “must make changes for me”

    Just this morning I was happy, at just after 8am I dashed across the road to my pharmacy because my prescription ran out last night and I have to take it twice daily! Happy, because it was just over the road…and it was earlier enough that he wasn’t busy, fast service.

    Then I was even more happy when 15mins later there was a heavy bout of rain, and I had missed it completely 🙂
    Cathy in NZ´s last blog post ..Not much to see!

  10. Jean says:

    It sounds as if your life is working well for you now. You deserve it! I’m glad your experience with the pharmacy worked out so well. It was a lot better than my trying to do some laundry today. I was just about to go down to the laundry room when I noticed that they had shut off the water to our apartment. I phoned to see what was going on and it was for all of our apartments here because of some emergency that needed a new part. So as soon as the water came back on 1 3/4 hours later I got back on schedule. Not a big deal, but a bit of a nuisance. It does make me appreciate our utilities.

    Isn’t retirement great? 🙂

  11. Nick says:

    Sorry, WordPress lost my entire comment – it was a long one too. Maybe I have to do that little sum before I click Submit?
    Nick´s last blog post ..Crisis, what crisis?

  12. Nick says:

    Ah yes. Maybe the sum should be ABOVE the large Submit button?

  13. Jean says:

    I was advised to put in the captcha because of hackers. I used the plugin suggested and I agree, it is confusing. I’m sorry about that. The one tammy uses is more clear and more forgiving — I’ll ask her if she knows what she’s using (a friend may have set it up for her.) Thanks for telling me about the problem.

  14. Jean says:

    When I submit a comment without doing the captcha I’m directed to another page that says to please fill out the form. If I use the back arrow I get back here and my comment hasn’t disappeared.

  15. Nick says:

    Yes, I got that message about filling in the form, but when I went back the comment had gone. Anyway, I know about the little number question now!
    Nick´s last blog post ..Crisis, what crisis?

  16. Dixie says:

    Flow. “Be the jellyfish.” It was a phrase my therapist gave me to use when doing shoulder exercises. It was a tough break for the bone and required total relaxation to complete the exercises. Less pain, more gain, kept me sane.

    Flow. A four letter word, describing action that’s probably my greatest challenge. There are times when flow precedes the happiness factor, for me. Other times the opposite and happiness gets me to the flow of things/events.

    I like the idea of exchanging the attitude of stress for excitement for a task. I enjoy things going along peacefully, yet I’m always aware that pop ups occur. You know, those aggravating moments when the paint bottle spills(smile).

    Great post though and if you don’t mind… once again I’d love to make a copy and read it many times over!!! Possibly post it on the refrigerator where all of the important stuff is.(!) I do drink a lot of ice water! Thank you, Jean.
    Dixie´s last blog post ..the fruit of the tree

  17. Jean says:

    I sympathize about the physical therapy. I had a frozen shoulder once and a therapist who tackled it aggressively. Instead of taking it slowly she would decide, “No, we can do a bit more today.” She also told me it was all right to scream — sometimes that helps.

    I agree that pop ups do occur and it’s best to have a strategy for dealing with them.

    Sorry I didn’t answer this sooner! I’m afraid your comment temporarily slipped in a crack.

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