For a long time I have searched for a reason for our goal-driven nature that went beyond a simple evolutionary psychology explanation: our hard wired drive to perpetuate our gene pool, our need to satisfy basic needs (food, shelter, sex). Goal oriented humans would have had a better chance of survival. Without a goal oriented nature we would not hunt or gather. But in the developed world at least, those basic human needs are generally taken care of (at least basically). A simple evolutionary explanation does not suffice.
In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that our prime goal has moved from basic survival to the desire for happiness. Yet we are no happier than our ancestors despite the trappings of the modern world. Happiness cannot be found in materialism. Happiness, according to Mihaly (and I tend to agree) is found in the state he calls flow. Much like Eckhard Tolie, flow is living in the “now” but is different in that Eckhard focuses on egolessness and Mihaly focuses on matching talent and challenge.
Much has been written on flow since Mihaly introduced the concept (although the fundamental idea is not new). In sport psychology it is often called “being in the zone”. Flow is that internal state where time almost stops, where we meet the challenge with ease. Everything just clicks in to gear. We feel neither anxiety nor boredom in what we are doing. It is almost intoxicating. Once we have experienced it we almost always want to go back and experience it again. Knowingly or not we are driven to experience this state – our goal orientation (to my mind) can be found here.
For many years I would say to my wife than when I walk into my kungfu kwoon (training hall) I am a different person. I am not the person people see at the office and sadly not often enough at home either. I wonder why this could be. It certainly was not my imagination as some students have commented on their perception of their teacher and I have wondered if they were mistaking me for someone else. Mihaly provides an answer. Flow occurs when you are presented with a challenge that requires that you draw on your skills and talent to meet it, and where you have the necessary skill and talent to succeed. When the challenge exceeds your skill you grow anxious and when your skill exceeds the challenge you grow bored. kungfu is that place where challenge meets skill and where I most often feel that state of flow, or being in the zone. No matter what mood I am in when I arrive I almost always leave with a smile.
The thing about flow is the requirements are always shifting. The more we do something the better we become and hence a greater the challenge is required it to be aligned with improving skill. We’re always looking for a bigger wave, a steep slope, a higher mountain, and for those who find flow in creating wealth there is always a bigger deal to be made (which is fine as long as you know why you are chasing the next challenge). When we stop being challenged in one thing we become bored; we often begin to seek challenges else where (and I this is why we need to keep our relationships interesting).
It occurs to me that it would be very interesting (although very difficult to measure) to explore the neuroscience of flow. If you have any thoughts on that please share them with me.
I’m off to chase the flow experience in racing my MTB down the mountain.