What’s your best state to be in at work? What’s your best state to be in when making love? Ok, and what’s your best state to be in when playing with your kids, or watching a movie, or reading a book, or writing an article or playing a sport? The list could go on with as many activities as you can think of – yes, even cleaning the bathroom, having a fight, dealing with conflict or simply painting the garden fence.
I’m sure you’ll have a lot of different states that come to mind for each of these activities, some similar and some vastly different depending on the context. But what if I told you that the best state for all of these is the same, would you believe me?
So first off I’d better explain what I mean by ‘state’. When asked what ‘state’ means, most people will answer with some kind of emotional state such as happy or sad. Some might come up with something more complex like confused, frustrated, reflective or curious. So with so many different states, how can there be just one that’s the best for all of those completely different contexts, and what is that state?
It’s a bit of a trick question really. Obviously you wouldn’t want to be in a ‘serious’ state when having a romantic dinner, a backyard BBQ or playing fun games with your kids; nor in a ‘happy’ state when getting mugged! The trick in the question is that I’m not talking about the primary state (happy, sad, confused, intrigued, etc.), I’m talking about the meta-state that governs the primary ones. Primary states tend to be ones we’re aware of in any situation; “Hmm, I’m feeling comfortable”. Meta-states are more ‘out of consciousness’, operating at a higher level. It’s true that there are also many different meta-states; so what on earth is that one that I’m talking about?
The best state for any activity is the state of “Flow”. Flow is the term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He’s been described as the worlds’ leading expert on positive psychology and is known for his work on creativity and happiness.
Flow refers to the state of being completely engaged in any activity. Athletes, chess players, top surgeons and business professionals all speak of being “In the Zone”. Maslow’s descriptions of “peak experiences” are very similar (if not the same). In Neuro-Semantics we call it the ‘’Genius state” and learning to turn on this state of complete engagement, happiness and rapture at will is the entire focus of the Self Leadership (training also known as Accessing Personal Genius).
We’ve all experienced the state of flow at one time or another. You’ll know the experience of being totally lost in a book or movie, of the feeling that whatever you’re doing is just so easy and gives you those moments of bliss, when everything is easy and joyous – even crappy or mundane things! I remember being in fights (in my long distant past, as well as martial arts fights), when my mind suddenly just went completely calm and things felt effortless. The great thing is that this state can come around from doing any activity – when conditions are right.
Csikszentmihalyi; “The flow experience, like everything else is not “good” in any absolute sense. It is only good in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.”
I’d highly recommend the book “Flow, The Psychology Of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In it he describes the experience and outlines the conditions required. Basically there has to a balance between challenge and competency. There has to be enough challenge in the activity to engage your mind in an effortful way, thus cancelling out other distractions. But not so much challenge as to make the task so difficult that you won’t be successful. This creates a moment where your mind is totally in the moment. There also has to be a set of rules involved (even if these rules are just your own) and there has to be immediate feedback on how you’re doing.
We all experience flow. But to make life more enjoyable and blissful, and a whole lot less boring and stressful, learning to cultivate flow can be the key to a happier, healthier and more meaningful existence.