Chess, learning, climbing, swimming, playing music, coding, parkour, conversations, skiing, philosophizing, proving mathematical theorems, painting and a host of other activities can lead to the same cognitive and mental state => Flow.
Flow is an experience of happiness and it is an essential ingredient of a life worth living. Optimizing for flow states is key. The idea of flow is connected to the greek ideas of Eudaimonia and Arete. It's about the striving for happiness.
To be in flow states feels extremely good. And people cherish the time when they are in flow. Flow states are known by many names, but they all describe the same experience: "Being in the zone", "forgetting time", "runners high", "ecstasy", "losing yourself". Csikszentmihalyi coined the term "Flow" for all of them and that's the main idea behind the book.
During flow states, people forget themselves. The world seems to vanish, and time ceases to exist. People are absorbed into the activity, they are completely concentrated on it. And during flow states they are often doing the best work they are capable of. During flow work can become play and vice versa.
There are definitive characteristics that combine to make flow states possible:
- concentration on the activity
- intrinsic reward, arousal
- clear, challenging, but attainable goals
- immediate feedback
- outcome under personal control
Flow is about things that are challenging, but not too challenging, attainable, but only with a good amount of effort. Things where we need to push ourselves, to achieve them. But where we also know in each moment whether we are doing good or not. And where we can control the outcome by out actions.
Almost any activity can be turned into an activity that makes flow attainable. The recipe is this:
- set goals and challenges,
- focus on the actions and possible improvements that could be made
- then improve and focus on doing better than before
- keep raising the bar, competing against your past self, to become better over time
Basically think, what is in this activity, that I don't quite know how to do yet, but am confident I can achieve when I really concentrate, then set out to do this thing. And then repeat.
Flow has key overlap with deliberate practice. Though deliberate practice can often be painful, it can also lead to flow states. The main thing distinguishing the two is the distance of the skill away from the comfort zone. If it is too much outside our comfort zone, then deliberate practice is painful and hurts. It is stress, because we are inadequate for the task. If it is too easy, we get bored and don't want to do the task. If it is just right, we can experience flow.
So in a way flow is about finding the balance. It's about knowing, just how much we have to push ourselves, so that we neither get bored, nor frustrated. If we can continually do that, we can keep increasing our skills in an infinite game we play solely for our own enjoyment. We can be at flow, no matter what we are doing.