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FLOW - The Classic View & Flow Pairs




Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed and refined his concept of Flow from Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (1988) to Flow: the psychology of happiness (1992); Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention (1996); Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life (1997); and Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness (2002).


The Csikszentmihalyi Flow diagram shows how people react to various levels of challenge, in relation to their level of skill. In Flow, there is a delicate balance between a high level of skill and a highly challenging task. And of course, as your skills develop, you have to look for more demanding challenges, in order to remain in Flow.


Csikszentmihalyi also identified other characteristics of Flow, including Time Distortion. Whilst you are in Flow, you don't notice how fast the time is passing. When you finish the Flow activity, you are surprised how much time has gone by.


Another effect that might only be noticed afterwards is how much fun it was, whilst you were in Flow. Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of mountaineers making a tough climb. During the ascent, the climbers have to focus on the challenge and apply their skills; it might well be hard work. When they reach the summit and survey the view, then they feel a sese of euphoria at their acheivement.  


Csikszentmihalyi associated Flow with a particular personality type, the Autotelic, from auto ~ self & telos ~ purpose. Autotelics are strongly self-motivated, ready to do something for its own sake, 'because it's there'. If you feel that the task at hand is interesting and worth doing, you are more likely to be in Flow whilst you are doing it. If you can find this motivation for yourself in many activities, you can live much of your life in Flow. 





My investigation of Flow takes a phenomenological and experiential approach: What happens? How does it feel? And I consider Flow, not as a life-style choice for the autotelic personality, but as a particular state of consciousness that anyone can access


In addition to Challenge & Skill, another key characteristic of Flow identified by Csikszentmihalyi is a sense of Control. So if you can operate one or even both Control levers, you can adjust the Challenge/Skill levels to a suitably high balance. Now you are ready to launch into Flow.  


My Flow Gauges tell the same story as Csikszentmihalyi's diagram. Challenge and Skill are both at high levels, balancing each other. But my Zone Levers put the Control in your hands. As airline pilots say when the co-pilot takes over: "You have Control!"


But paradoxically, another characteristic of Flow is lack of self-consciousness. You are just getting on with it, you are not thinking about how other people see you, you are thoroughly absorbed in the activity itself. You do have Control, but you might not be self-aware, you might not be consciously aware of your Control over your own state of Flow. So Control and Unselfconsciousness form another Flow-Pair, which similarly balance each other at a high level.


And I propose that all Csikszentmihalyi's Flow characteristics can be organised into such high-balancing pairs. Like Challenge & Skill and Control & Unselfconsciousness, Concentration & Relaxation also need to be balanced, with both of them at high levels. In Flow, you are wonderfully focussed - Concentrated - but at the same time there is no excess tension to distract you or mar your performance. You are marvelously Relaxed.


And the pairs are inter-related: Concentration has to rise to meet the Challenge; high levels of Skill allow you to Relax. Control helps you Concentrate, Unselfconsciousness allows you to Relax.


Two more Csikszentmihalyi variables form another Lawrence-King Flow-Pair: Goals & Feedback. To sustain Flow, you need clear Goals, and equally clear Feedback about how well you are doing, in relation to those Goals. Goals obviously relate to Challenge; Feedback nurtures your Skill.


Csikszentmihalyi observes that in Flow, your Awareness of the situation merges with your Action, so that you respond quickly and smoothly, hardly aware of the high quality decisions that your Unconscious mind is making for you. In this high-balanced pair, Awareness relates to Goals and Challenge; Action flows from your Skill and Relaxation.


Finally, Csikszentmihalyi notes that Flow often does not provide instant gratification; the autotelic personality is ready to accept delayed payback. I pair this with the other time-related feature of Flow: Time Distortion. Whilst you are in Flow, and not expecting any 'reward', Time seems to go fast, and the payback may actually come sooner than you expected. Delayed Gratification is related to the scale of the Challenge; my theory proposes that Time Distortion lines up with Relaxation and Skill. 


In my view, Flow is a special state of mind - in technical language an Altered State of Consciousness - that you can learn to enter. You have Control, even if - once you are in Flow - you may not be aware of the Control you are exercising.  All the other features of Flow are also organised into pairs, each pair balanced at high levels. The various pairs are interdependent. And we shall see that the Time Controls [Delayed Gratification & Time Distortion] select subtle differences between Flow and The Zone.


The Control/Challenge set of parameters are all markers of Intensity. I hypothesise that the Relaxation/ Unselfconsciousness set are signs of the Dissociation that characterises this Altered State of Consciousness.


The story continues here...

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