Part II: Flow, meaning, and a state of grace

Woah!! Whaddaya mean you’re not clear on the plot line?

Earlier this month, this blog posted on the idea of optimal experience in life, a state of mind that some have referred to as flow. The concept refers to those times when one is completely absorbed in the moment, whether that occurs when scaling a mountain, drawing a picture, or figuring out an Excel formula (=SUM(no_way!)).

Now, probably the most comprehensive and shared flow experiences occur during childhood, as during play we are completely immersed in the moment and that moment becomes our whole reality.  I mean, what kid is thinking about past or future homework when being chased by a rabid sibling channeling Cujo?

The researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has taken quite an interest in this subject, and his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is a fine read for those wanting to know more.  This post however, concerns itself less with the entirety of the book as opposed to the ending sections, where Csíkszentmihályi touches on the intriguing thought of having an overall architecture or purpose that extends over one’s lifetime.  He argues that the potential for quality moments expand when we identify a consistent purpose to our time here, whatever that purpose may be.

To give a tangible example, in 2005 a documentary was released called “The Real Dirt on Farmer John“.  The great thing about this doc was that the filmmaker (at first by accident and increasingly on purpose) had captured nearly thirty years of footage on his friend John Peterson, an eccentric individual with a single-minded conviction to be a successful farmer.  The film – shot in formats ranging from home video to Super 8 – thus affords a rare vantage point of seeing a story arc unfold over the course of one lifetime.  And because this particular person had a particular purpose he kept coming back to, we could see in technicolour hindsight the multitude of actions, good and bad, light and dark, that contributed to his overall life’s meaning (whether he realized it at the time or not).  And thus, through the highs and lows and the wins and the losses, Farmer John’s life was rich in quality and he lived in a greater state of flow.

In the longer term, defining purpose, whether it’s for part of one’s life or the whole of it, in essence allows us to bootstrap many of our supposed incidental moments.  And these moments, given enough time and knit into a coherent whole, can thereby make up much more than the sum of their parts… much like the coloured bits of glass that, stepping back, make up the stained glass window of our lives.

P.S.  Another take on this phenomena was recently covered by Colby Cosh in his sophisticated piece Artisan chocolate and social revolution, where he muses on the future of work in the context of hipster chocolate and strangely long beards.  Although Cosh’s piece is primarily focused on the revival of artisan goods and craftsmanship as a counter to mass mechanization, i.e. “You had better be prepared to be a distinct individual, to treat your particular line of work as a craft rather than a job, to seek out the style or the method or the niche that no one else is in; nobody’s going to need you to knock out pyramid-style copy on deadline or take trite photos from accident scenes…“, one could argue a byproduct of mastering a craft is actually increased opportunities for a flow state.  Why?  Because mastery of anything fulfills several preconditions for flow (i.e. energized focus, deep involvement, clear goals, etc.).  Given that craftsmanship can take a lifetime to master, this sets up a solid framework for a richly fulfilling occupation… gathering Paradise, so to speak.

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10 thoughts on “Part II: Flow, meaning, and a state of grace

    • Yes, I think so… one’s sense of purpose may be quite different in one’s 20s vs. one’s 50s, but at the same time changing the rudder position too many times may just end up steering the boat in circles!

  1. Also, as a first thought given this will sink in more over time I think, I can see how an overall purposeful meaning can affect everything in your life. It’s like sticking to the mandate of a company or something. Thanks for sharing.

    • You are welcome!!! And thanks for reading.. good analogy as far as sticking to a company mandate. It just somehow seems more complicated in one’s own life though!

  2. Hypothesis: there are far more happy people in the world than there
    are successful-people-with-a-purpose.

    A good deal of attention is given to the inspired
    worker that makes a success of themselves through devotion to a
    cause. It’s a romantic idea(l) – to be so passionate and inspired…

    Why would our busy-bee society love to advertise such a way of life?
    For one, it feeds on insecurity – everyone feels a little
    empty or unsuccessful inside – you just have to catch them at a time
    when confidence isn’t high. It’s a bit like a self-help book,
    catering to an abstract problem that everyone has, then declaring
    their blanket solution will help everyone. It offers an escape from
    the emptiness – encouraging to work harder at something you love.
    Through ruthless dedication to one’s cause, enlightenment can be
    reached. They’re trying to sell happiness and fulfillment.

    What you won’t hear while listening to those stories is how ruthless
    dedication to a cause can equally lead to loss, isolation or
    depression. How does the dedicated person that makes sacrifices in
    important areas of their life fare? What happens to the happiness of
    people that invest so much time and emotion in an ideal that doesn’t
    work out? What happens when it does work out, but the person spent a
    lifetime suffering? You don’t often hear how happy the likes of
    Beethoven or Ayn Rand were – would you want to live the life they
    lived, in exchange for being better remembered when you’re no longer here?

    There are plenty of inspiring tales of happy, kind, productive people.
    We like hearing such stories – we go in search of them especially on
    those days we feel lacking in purpose. But remember there are
    equally dedicated and successful people that are completely miserable.

    I conclude that happiness and well being are not caused by dedication or
    purpose – but, like many other aspects of life, can be influenced by them.

    People don’t always look for a purpose – it’s often a fleeting
    sensation when things aren’t quite going right. It’s usually tricky
    to put a label what exactly is wrong, because honest self reflection is
    hard. Really hard. Take a good look at yourself, and your situation;
    ask yourself what’s wrong or missing; make plans to correct it.

    Corollary: feel-good-self-help books are available for a small fee and
    will tell you pleasant stories. You’ll eventually come to search out
    the types of stories you want to hear. Which stories
    make you feel best? Those might indicate what you’re lacking…

    Corollary: to lead a balanced life, one should seek out self-loathing
    books when in good spirits and motivated.

    • Self-loathing books, lol! I may have to borrow that one…

      An interesting treatise you are developing here. At the heart of it, it sounds as though you are saying that the dedicated worker is very much encouraged in our society, and that this helps fill that existential void especially when the spirit is weak. And that oftentimes this ruthless dedication can come at a very high cost, for example if someone gets more joy from family yet spends all their time at work, it will be a bit of a joyless existence.

      I agree with you that happiness and well being aren’t necessarily caused by dedication, and at times dedication can work at cross purposes to happiness if those things aren’t aligned. That said, I do think that finding some kind of meaning in what you are doing, even something that you’ve in the past found mundane, contributes that much more potential for happiness/interest/involvement. By necessity we spend so much of our time doing things that we might not choose as our first priority for time spent, so why not make these experiences as engaging and enriching as we possibly can?

      Maybe happiness is made up of a whole bunch of rivulets.

      • …it seems to come down to a difference between happiness from ‘being’ and happiness from ‘doing’ – I’m hoping the former’s sufficient, but I guess I’ll keep busy until I figure it out.

        • Well said.. but now I’m wondering if busy-ness can preclude the simply being part… which is what you were saying to begin with I guess!

  3. My theory on happiness is centered around identifying those elements that don’t allow you attain the “happy” state. By appreciating your anti-happy agents (elements that steal your happiness) you may choose one of three strategies. (1) Choose to strive to eliminate them. (2) Ignore them. (3) Befriend them. Then it gets more complicated as I ask what then makes us happy and over time I have come to see that this does depend on one’s level of psycho social evolution (not sure this term exists) i.e. is one body focused, ego focused or soul focused. To keep it simple I will use simple illustrations. Where one is body focused hunger may be the cause of unhappiness. To attain the “happy” state, you may: (1) strive to eliminate hunger – choose to go in search of food, eat and satisfy your hunger and be happy; (2) you may choose to ignore it by being busy at work or at play and find happiness in something else; (3) You may choose to befriend it by finding new meaning in fasting from which you will find happiness. Three options open to you. The same arguments holds for the ego and soul centered ones among us.
    By searching for “flow” to find happiness, we have made a foundational assumption about the level we have reached in our psycho social evolution and we here assume that emptiness, boredom, lack of ambition etc. are our anti-happy agents. Be that as it may, I still believe the three options remain available to us. Strive to eliminate it (find your groove that creates “flow”); ignore it (put on your “c’est la vie” hat and get on with life notwithstanding); befriend it (As Wayne Dyer puts it – Do the Dao, Do nothing yet leave nothing undone, trade in striving for arriving, live in the now, accept what is offered by the Great Mother).
    Be happy by being, escaping or by doing I guess are what the options are. “Flow” is seeking happiness by doing when one is in that psycho social evolutionary state where “flow” delivers happiness. My two pence.

    • Hi Bobby ! Wow, what a considered and interesting comment – “two pence” in your world equates to much more than that. I like your description of anti-happy agents (they sound very nefarious, these agents) and the three available coping strategies – my first thought was befriending them sounds like the best long-term strategy (although this may mean that they become more part of your life than necessary). You wrote a fantastic analogy to illustrate this in the next part of your comment! I like how you turned hunger on its head and into a friend by exploring the possibilities of fasting. I wonder…. maybe the first response tends to be the most common/simplest – a knee-jerk reaction to a situation or event.
      As to flow being a foundational assumption (axiom?), yes, you have a point. I think writers like M. Csikscentmihalyi both explore and support the first action primarily – that is, “strive to eliminate it”. What I’m understanding from your comment is that befriending is ultimately what we might call real wisdom – appreciating and learning from each and every situation so to speak.
      Mentally, I feel as though I’m still an adolescent stage in terms of puzzling these things out in my own life – the flow achieved by “doing” is such a exhilarating experience – but there’s part of me that’s noticing the tenuous nature of this pursuit. Thanks for building this discussion.

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