We recently conducted a stress test within our team; all 11 members answered an online questionnaire which compiled of 20 questions. The mean stress level was 52 and I came in at a peachy 82. The co-ordinator sent round a witty “summary” of the results and proposed that I hide my stress well. Those words stuck with me. They stung. Why? “Hiding” sounds deceitful – it sounded like I’m emotionally challenged.
I have a relatively high pain threshold, and a high stress threshold. I grew up in a relatively turbulent environment and for years I believed I had mastered the art of compartmentalisation – of burying myself in another project to escape the pain, stress and reality of what was going on around me. This carried into adulthood; whilst the fiercest love I had ever experienced was crumbling before my eyes, I swamped myself in my MA. And now, as my work landscape is altering, I’ve submerged myself in my ’19 for 2019′ (see post 4/1/19). But compartmentalisation suggests avoidance, it suggests an inability to deal with feelings. It’s not a skill to be worn as a badge of honour. Until: I read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Random House, 2002).
This research shifted the discourse from one of running away/avoidance, to running towards/embracing. ‘Flow is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake’. Csikszentmihalyi identifies flow activities as those which offer a feeling of forward movement, that dominate our concentration, that are complex and push at the boundary of the self, and obliterate the presence of external factors, along with the concern for the self. Flow creates a sense of purpose and participation in ‘determining the content’ and future of one’s life. It provides meaning in an otherwise barren environment. And so, it’s no surprise that people retreat to their flow-inducing activities in times of chaos to achieve some semblance of mental congruence. A place where thoughts, feelings and actions are as one. Order from disorder.
Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi establishes the link between childhood trauma and flow within high performing historical figures; Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein all could have had better upbringings, but they created strategies to avoid disorder in their own minds which resulted in the invention of ‘powerful and useful lives’. Reading literature is also linked to this transition from chaos to order; books offer ‘models of purpose’ based on meaningful goals from which readers can learn, if they haven’t been exposed to such examples growing up.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work mirrored my experiences back to me – there are activities which create a sense of flow within me: Training, Reading, Writing. Whilst pursuing these activities, time falls away – as do people and my internal voice. It’s just me and the task. I run to these activities when I have spare time (much like an illicit lover), I sacrifice other events and errands to maximise my time with these tasks, and they’re the first things I turn to in times of adversity. This also explains the need for sobriety in difficult times, if only to be able to access that state of flow and higher being. It makes sense as to why my ‘enough’ moment with alcohol was the morning after a few drinks when I was trying to write, in vain. Drink dulls the brain – it doesn’t order and expand it. However, it’s often only in challenging times that these are identifiable as distinct activities, and their value in stimulating flow is highlighted. In the course of the day to day, it’s easy to overlook their presence and their impact.
Yet, now that I’m conscious of these flow-inducing activities, they have become the ‘magnetic field’ that attracts my psychic energy more than before – ‘a goal upon which all lesser goals depend’ and the quest has enlargened. I’ve become stressed that I can’t fully dedicate myself to these activities and my sense of purpose. If flow activities offer respite from the noise of everyday life, is there a way to broaden the scope of flow activities – to transform one’s life into a flow activity?: ‘a focused, concentrated, internally coherent, logically ordered set of experiences, which, because of its inner order’ creates meaning, purpose and enjoyment?
As Csikszentmihalyi argues, it’s easier to do this when choice is reduced and clear, something which is supported by Jack Welch’s advice that more than three life goals are too many. By refusing to affirmatively choose a path, this creates inner conflict and disharmony which ultimately impedes on the focus and concentration that flow requires. These flow-inducing goals have to be pursued with such an intensity that all competition for one’s attention is eradicated.
From here, my mind jumped to Joshua Becker’s perspective on living a minimalist life and it struck me how closely it aligns with the concept of flow. His case for minimalism is that you should prioritise items which help you to fulfil your purpose, and by removing the excess (or no longer purchasing it) you can be more effective in pursuing your sense of mission. For instance, accruing designer handbags can detract your time and resources from studying towards a new qualification. Not that I, nor Becker, are living in judgement of the designer handbags; as Csikszentmihalyi emphasises, it doesn’t matter what your choice is, as long as it’s internally motivated, it will be your higher purpose.
And so, flow is not a mythical state of being attainable by only the most creative and achieving of society. Flow is a state in which people can escape stress, adversity, existential dread, and find meaning, purpose and joy in the every-day. It can be fleeting or all-consuming. It can be your bit on the side, or it can guide the path of your life. The challenge of choice is yours.
Photocredit: C. Davey.