We come to the final part of our discussion of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s eight “characteristic dimensions of the flow experience” outlined in his book The Evolving Self.
Why pursue flow state?
Because flow makes it feel wonderful to do difficult things. Seeking flow can become a habit. When this habit is applied to a great and noble cause you have enormous self-motivation to do the difficult work required.
Let’s explore this further in the eighth characteristic dimension…
#8 – Experience becomes autotelic: worthy doing for its own sake.
What this means is that you end up liking practice because practice is enjoyable in some satisfying way, leaving you feeling better than when you started. You may have a specific goal in mind to shape the training, but you don’t necessarily need that goal to keep you devoted to training.
You might start a process of difficult training with the intention of reaching a certain goal that will make you feel good about the accomplishment only after it is done, like doing all the work required to swim your next Big Distance successfully. But, if you tap into flow as part of the daily preparatory work, you end up being rewarded with satisfying experiences in each of those training sessions. You don’t have to wait until after the successful swim in order to feel rewarded for all the effort because reward is built into the process of training and becomes incentive enough to keep doing it.
Becoming Addicted To Flow
This is the interesting thing that happens for many: flow may be used at first as a tool used to help you achieve a Big Goal, but once flow is experienced regularly, the Big Goal becomes the tool (the excuse) for creating new opportunities for flow. (I explain something of this in Achievement As A Tool).
Reaching the Big Goal no longer seems like the only thing that matters. The process of getting there takes on more importance because each training session has a built-in, immediate reward, and leaves you feeling better. Because of this you are less vulnerable to feeling devastated if something comes along to prevent you from reaching that Big Goal. You’ve been extracting reward all along, becoming a measurably better swimmer each time.
When most of these seven dimensions are present in consciousness, the activity being undertaken tends to become autotelic, that is, worth doing for its own sake. Because the experience is so pleasurable, one wants to repeat whatever helped to make it happen. (page 186)
Rather than using flow to reach an achievement goal, you end up choosing a new achievement goal because it helps you set up more flow experiences. You want to practice for the sake of practicing. You want to learn for the sake of learning. It is directly rewarding to the brain to experience growth. You do end up performing better, achieving more, but that may not be the main point any more.
Flow Toward A Good Cause
Flow can be tapped for destructive activities as well as healthy ones. Flow is neutral – it can be applied in any sort of complex activity – those that lead to constructive, life-giving achievements and those that lead to meaningless wastes of time or even destructive achievements. This is why it is important to make sure the activity is taking you in a desired direction before tapping into flow so that your habit is positive. Once you know your process is going to take you in a good direction, you can then plug in and lose your self in flow for a while.
But what is relevant here is that whenever an activity produces flow, a strong attraction to repeat that activity begins to operate. It is for this reason that it becomes so important to learn to enjoy activities that lead to harmonious complexity rather than chaos. (page 187)
When we tap into flow, it can and should be addicting. It’s how our brain is wired to function both for being creative and for being motivated to work and seek out greater growth opportunities. It creates acceleration toward great and important achievements.
But one can use flow while practicing difficult skills for killing, stealing and destroying things, or to pursue meaningless things that waste time and resources and don’t make anything better in this world. Those would be an example of applying flow in the wrong direction.
Flow could be applied to anything that requires learning new skills and regular practice which means we must exercise some discernment about what we aim for. So, it is important first to choose a worthy goal, and an effective process, before giving ourselves to the addiction of flow state in practice.
To read the other parts of this series:
- Part 1 – Finding Flow In Swimming
- Part 2 – Flow Requires Preparation
- Part 3 – Flow Requires Clear Goals
- Part 4 – Flow Requires Opportunities To Act
- Part 5 – Flow Requires Full Attention
- Part 6 – Flow Requires Sense Of Control
- Part 7 – Lose Your Self In Flow
- Part 8 – Flow Alters Sense Of Time
- Part 9 – Addicted To Flow
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