I am currently reading a book on what the author calls “the optimal experience”. The book is called „Flow: The Psychology of Happiness” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Basically, using the findings of modern psychology, the book tries to answer a very old question: When do people feel most happy? Even though the book has more than two decades since it was written and the findings in psychology and neuroscience have evolved since then, it is worth reading it as it brings a new light on happiness and our attitude toward it.
In order to answer the question, professors and students at the University of Chicago (than other universities followed) have conducted a research. The purpose of the research was to interview people during a week at different moments of the day. The respondents were given a pager and they were asked to fill in a form describing what they were doing and how they were feeling each time the pager beeped.
The findings were unexpected:
- It seems that the happiest moments are not when we are relaxing, but when we are engaged in an activity. Leisure time is enjoyable too, but it seems that the optimal experience does not occur while doing nothing, but while doing something.
- The happiest moments were described by the respondents in almost the same way, regardless of gender, age, cultural differences or geographical position on the globe.
The author gave a name to the optimal experience: he called it flow. It is described in the book as: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. When I first read about flow, I recognized the state and I think you do too, but I had never thought of it as being the happiest situation in my life. What I recognized though is the fact that I am always searching for it and I rate my days at work by how much of my time I spent in flow.
Some conditions must be met for the flow to appear:
1. The activity should be challenging and should require skill. This means that the activity should not be too easy because it may become boring but it should not be too hard either as it may bring anxiety.
2. The awareness of the individual is merged with the activity itself. The person becomes so involved in the activity that he loses awareness of himself as separate from the activity he is performing. Everything the person does, the thinking, the gestures, and the movements become almost automatic.
3. The activity should have clear goals and feedback. It helps very much to have clear objectives when we are doing something and to have immediate feedback on how we are doing. If we know the direction and we are constantly reassured that we are on the right track, we clear our minds from useless worries. This allows us to focus only on the task at hand and nothing else.
4. The individual’s attention is almost completely absorbed by the activity. The mind is no longer drawn by useless thoughts and is focused on only one thing.
5. The fear of failure disappears. In flow, people feel that they are in control of their world, since nothing else matters, but the task at hand.
6. Self-consciousness is lost. We spend too much of our everyday life thinking about ourselves, evaluating ourselves and wondering if we are doing well or not. When all attention and concentration is absorbed by an activity, we cease to be self-conscious. Along with this comes a sense of unity with the environment and with other people, a feeling that we are part of something far greater than us.
7. The passing of time is transformed. The time seems to pass much faster when one is absorbed by an activity.
As you can see, most of the attributes of a flow activity depend a lot on the involved person. The same task can produce flow or not depending on the individual, on how he perceives the activity and how he can find the opportunities for action.
And, as with all good things in life, there is a dark side to the flow. People can become addicted to the activities that produce flow for them and on the feelings that flow produces and they might grow unable to live in the real world. It all depends on our mental capacities and emotional intelligence. After all, it is up to us if we become addicted or not and we should not blame the external factors: the substance, the object or the feeling.
What I find most important in this research is the fact that it proves people do enjoy working. They work for the sake of it and not just for material incentives. Creating the proper conditions for flow to occur, might be a gold mine for companies.
It seems that in flow activities compared with non-flow ones, the results of our work are better, we are more creative, we do not grow tired and we feel a sense of accomplishment at the end.
If a company can create the premises for flow to occur for their employees, they will have happy and creative employees, higher productivity and lower turnover, and all this at almost no cost at all.
Of course it depends a lot on the employees if they will experience flow at work or not, but the managers can also contribute and make sure they create the necessary premises:
1. They set clear goals and priorities. Like this, the employee can concentrate only on the activity he needs to perform and he does not ask himself if this is the task he should be doing at the moment or is there another?
2. They provide feedback when necessary. Usually, less experienced employees need the feedback more often, while the more experienced ones know when they are on the right track.
3. They protect their employees from stress as much as possible. A person is stressed when she feels threatened. The threat can come through many ways and channels: from people outside the team (they are not happy with the employee’s work), from inside the team (colleagues are not getting along, there is competition inside the team) or from the manager itself (the employee fears loosing promotion or even her job). All threats that an employee feels, channels his attention to something else besides his work. As a result, flow is no longer possible and the employee’s productivity is below his potential.
But even if the environment is completely set, it only depends on us and how we can organize ourselves and our lives to experience flow more often. And remember that our existence is made out of little moments that we live day by day. More happy moments make a happier life.