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.

Flow, meaning, and a state of grace

In life there are select moments when external and internal reality syncs perfectly, when ticking time shuts down and one is completely present.  For some, this state of grace may unfold when scaling a mountain (understandable, given that continued existence is delicately tied to that monumental rock!).  For others, these moments might be associated with the creation of music or the joy of painting, or for still others sifting rich loam while planting a garden…  Basically such moments can occur whenever the boundary between you and “not you” dissolves and you find (or lose) yourself in deep involvement with life.

These perfect, engrossing moments are the focus of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, an interesting read by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  In this treatment, Mihaly C. outlines research on the state of grace he calls “flow” and resulting thoughts on how being in flow profoundly affects the degree of enjoyment and satisfaction with one’s life experiences.  Mihaly C. argues that this flow state is the warp and woof of a rich existence; as individuals that seek and experience flow states create more opportunity for fulfillment regardless of circumstance or the experience in question.

Interestingly, a large section of Mihaly C.’s work focuses on the importance of the autotelic personality as a factor in frequent flow experiences. An autotelic personality is one that is strongly motivated by internal benefit as opposed to external reward, for example, a person that has an internal sense of purpose that is not as influenced by external conditions (i.e. those that happily make lemonade martinis when life gives them lemons).  Probably one of the better known examples of an autotelic personality is Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and a Dachau concentration camp survivor.  Viktor Frankl’s strong internal drive – or autotelic personality – was a large factor in his survival and triumph over his external environment and offers profound lessons on finding meaning in the darkest of places.

On a more contemporary basis, the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautiful description of one man’s lifetime dedication to mastering his craft: sushi-making.  It also offers a subtly wrought treatment of another formidable autotelic personality and illuminates a critical aspect to sustaining flow experiences.  As the flow state can be precipitated by taking on tasks that we find challenging, this means that it is important to increase the complexity of these tasks over time as our skills improve (as otherwise the activity becomes meaningless and boring).  In the film, we see Jiro’s passionate yet methodical dedication to elevating the art of sushi-making to new heights over his lifetime, where he dreams day and night of how to improve, how to better, how to create anew…

Essentially, where one man would find drudgery in placing bits of raw fish on rice for 70-some years, another has created an eternally challenging and deeply satisfying flow experience. The film ultimately provides a thoughtful reflection on the art, beauty, and pleasure of mastering a craft to increasing levels of perfection in keeping with the precepts of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Viktor Frankl.  Similarly, by looking upon our myriad actions as potential flow experiences – no matter how pedestrian or mundane they may seem – we all have the profound opportunity to infuse meaning, purpose, and growth into every moment.

P.S.  Mihaly C. suggests that societies can also influence the opportunity for frequent flow activities, citing examples as in the BaMbuti pygmies.  When not otherwise occupied with hunting or improving their villages, every adult in this society “is expected to be a bit of an actor, singer, artist and historian as well as a skilled worker” which leads Mihaly C. to suggest that “their culture would not be given a high rating in terms of material achievement, but in terms of providing optimal experiences their way of life seems to be extremely successful.”

In a related vein, the New York Times recently published a piece on the merits of being less productive, making the case that our chase after prosperity, productivity, and growth is at the expense of an economy of care, craft and culture. The author posits that far greater well-being and fulfillment would arise from more focus on aspects like craftsmanship and culture, i.e.: “It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year? “