I first came across the concept of flow psychology six years ago. I was deeply depressed at the time, working in a career that I hated, and wondering how (and if) I would ever feel fulfillment again in my professional life.
I wanted to figure myself out, on my own. I wanted to learn about my brain – how I thought, and why I thought this way. I wanted to figure out how to run my brain in a better way so that I could find fulfillment
At first I sought out “self help” and “success” literature, but I found it to be lacking in substance and application. Also, I found that it focused far too much on the “getting” components of life, rather than on the “being” aspects. This didn’t resonate with me. I had material success, so to speak. I had a good job, a new Lexus, and I took all the vacations I wanted to take. So more “stuff” wasn’t the answer. In fact, I now know that focusing on stuff, was actually at the root of the problem, in that I was living a hollow existence in my career, devoid of a greater sense of professional purpose.
Since self help books weren’t working, I then turned to Eastern Philosophy and Meditation. These gave me a great framework to work with in application. The habit of meditating and breathing allowed me to mitigate the anxiety I was constantly feeling in my career. Also, the concept of “detachment” taught me how to act without obsessing about what I would “get” from my actions. This made me more brave, more willing to experiment with career and life paths. However, I couldn’t fully embrace some of the esoteric spiritual parts of the philosophy, so there was a lingering disconnect for me.
I often wondered if Eastern Philosophy was simply a powerful “operating system” to run our brains – discovered thousands of years ago and practiced, with great benefit by millions of people. If that was the case I wanted to know more details about this operating system so that I could fully understand it, and implement it completely in my day to day life.
This is the context that I discovered flow psychology.
Without a doubt, flow psychology has been the most powerful concept that I have ever learned in my entire life in terms of helping me to feel harmonized fulfillment in my day to day life.
Flow was first articulated by the renowned psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his ground breaking book of the same name – a book that I have read no less than 10 times, front to back.
I would strong encourage everyone to buy this book. In short summary, flow states (in my words) are:
States of “optimal experience” that we, as humans, feel when we enter into a zone of energized focus, and complete immersion around the accomplishment of a specific goal or task. We hit these flow states when our skills match the difficulty of a task, and when we are in flow (or in the zone as it is often called) we lose our sense of consciousness of the self. Time even seems to stand still. We are provided with a new sense of discovery, a creative feeling of being alive, of transporting into a higher sense of reality. Therein we grow in complexity and feel that the experience is intrinsically rewarding (independent of anything that we may receive from the activity).
Flow, to me, is the psychological way of explaining the applied philosophy of detachment and presence (as taught through Eastern Philosophy). We are most fulfilled (operationally) when we are in a flow state.
When I discovered flow psychology I realized that fulfillment in my life was based on my ability to trigger flow states, therein controlling my consciousness. With this realization I wanted to experience more flow states, so I started to experiment.
I found that flow was easy to engage when I was doing things related to what I valued.
For me, my primary values were freedom, autonomy, creativity, contribution to others, building things and watching them grow, communicating, adventure and risk taking.
When I engaged in actions that allowed for these values to be experienced I triggered flow. This caused me to realize that I was in the wrong career because I didn’t (as a lawyer) get to experience these values on a day to day basis. As a result I wasn’t experiencing flow (and as a result I wasn’t fulfilled).
Moving over and making a change to be an entrepreneur and writer allowed me to experience my values daily. As a result I also started to feel flow daily as well. This lifted me out of depression. I now feel flow daily and feel very fulfilled and engaged in my work.
Over the last several years of experimenting with flow states I have come across a supplemental philosophy that I use each day to ensure that flow takes place. It is the philosophy articulated by Steven Pressfield in the War of Art .
Flow psychology is the operating system (or software) that we can use to run our brains so that we feel optimal experience daily. The power of flow in is in application not in its understanding alone.
If flow is software, then like any software, we also need hardware to run it properly.
The hardware is more than the tissue between our ears. In essence the hardware is our behaviour, it is our habits, and whether we have created habits that allow for flow to be felt on a daily basis.
This (the concept of hardware), for me, is where the War of Art comes in.
Again – best to buy and read the book for yourself, but in my words this is what the War of Art is about:
Fulfillment (you could also say flow) is found in the work itself. The only way to feel fulfillment is to do your work (your work being whatever you are authentically drawn to, ie. your unique values). Resistance stands in the way of our doing our work. Resistance is any force (fear, laziness, procrastination, distraction, etc) that prevents us from doing our work. We overcome resistance by being a “pro”, that is, by showing up every single day and doing our work. So if our heart calls us to be a writer then we write daily, no matter what. If our heart calls us to be an entrepreneur then we work on our business every single day, no matter what.
If flow is the operating system for a fulfilling life, then defeating resistance and being a “pro” is the hardware upon which it most effectively runs.
Flow states are the most optimal states in human experience. I believe this fully. A person who feels flow often will feel fulfilled. A person who never feels flow won’t be fulfilled. However, flow doesn’t “just happen” on its own. We have to induce it. We actually have to act in a way where flow will get triggered each day.
Pressfield’s philosophy is a disciplined way to induce flow each day:
- It breaks the day up onto chunks (doing your work, defeating resistance) and allows us to control our focus (ie. flow);
- It promotes focus only on the work for the work’s sake (creating order in consciousness, the autotelic experience);
- It creates a routine where flow gets induced every day;
- It is intrinsically focused, in that you appreciate, even depend on the work for its own sake;
- If forces you to put in the time to develop skill and mastery;
- It teaches you how to finish a project;
Without flow you don’t feel fulfilled. But without habits you don’t feel flow.
This has become my life philosophy – feeling flow and being a pro.
So if you aren’t feeling the flow in your life, I bet there is a good chance that you aren’t “acting like a pro” either.