One of the seminal works in psychology of the late 20th century is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, Mihaly describes what he calls ‘flow’, a state in which an individual engages in a task that balances skill and challenge with clear goals and immediate feedback. Mihaly likens this flow state to what athletes call ‘being in the zone’, and it is in this state Mihaly claims true happiness and enjoyment of life may be found.

A Life Worth Living

After happening into a lecture given by the great Carl Jung, Mihaly began to read all of the psychologist’s works. In so doing, Mihaly says he began to understand the roots of human happiness. According to Mihaly, at any given time in the United States only roughly 30% of people claim their life is very happy. According to Mihaly, after a certain point, just above the poverty line, increases in personal wealth do not effect increases to individual happiness. This realization ran counter to conventional assumption. So, Mihaly set out to discover where people felt the most happy with their daily lives.

The State of Flow

In order to dig deeper, Mihaly began to study creative people. These were people who never expected to earn fame and fortune from their art, but nevertheless claimed the work made their life feel meaningful and worth living. In one interview, a well-known musical composer described the state when his music composition was going well as follows: ‘You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hands seem devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the (music) just flows out of itself.”

Mihaly explains the greek word for ‘ecstasy’ refers to standing beside oneself. Thus, being in a state of ecstasy is essentially akin to stepping into an altered state of reality. According to Mihaly, the importance of this state may be seen all throughout history. Even the lasting remains of ancient civilizations are the arenas, circuses and amphitheaters where people would enter these altered realities different from their everyday life.

In the example of the composer, it is in the moment of creation that he himself enters the new reality. According to Mihaly, the human mind is only able to process a minute amount of information at a time. Thus, when your attention is fully engrossed in an activity, your mind does not have the ability to concentrate on your problems as well. Thus, when you are in a truly rapt state, even the environment around you dissipates. Even one’s personal identity and physical needs diminish in such a moment when other activities have so fully consumed one’s concentration.

Stories abound of surgeons who were so engaged in what they were doing they were unaware of a piece of the ceiling falling in while engaged in an operation. It is in this state that Mihaly is most interested — this absolute engagement in one’s work and activities. It is this state where the composer describes the music simply flowing out of him that Mihaly is most interested — this flow state.

A Key to Happiness

Mihaly claims his research has shown in order to be happy in work, what we are working on must seem important and must allow us to achieve this state of flow. In order to be successful in our work, we much achieve this state on repeated occasions. In this respect, there is truly something to finding what you’re passionate about, and doing what you love. Mihaly suggests this idea’s application in the workplace is expressed well by the original mission statement written by Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka. In it, Ibuku states his goal in founding Sony is to, ‘Establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content.’

The Characteristics of Flow

In his research, Mihaly claims to have interviewed over 8,000 individuals from a vast array of fields. Regardless of their discipline, the descriptions of the state they achieve when fully engrossed in their work remains strikingly similar. According to Mihaly, all individuals engaged in flow describe it as feeling:

Completely involved in what they are doing – Focused, concentrated.

A sense of ecstasy – Of being outside everyday reality.

Great inner clarity – Knowing what needs to be done, and how well they are doing.

Knowing that the activity is doable – That their skills are adequate to the task.

A sense of serenity – No worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.

Timelessness – Thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.

Intrinsic motivation – Whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

According to Mihaly, once these conditions are present, what we are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake and it is the task itself that we find our greatest joy.