Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., is professor at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University and the director of the Quality of Life Research Center. His books include the best-selling "Flow," "The Evolving Self," and "Creativity."
What is flow?
It's a total immersion in what you're doing, whether it's running a race or playing a difficult game. You're not dividing your attention and you're not hassling and second-guessing yourself. You are involved completely. Apart from elite athletes, can ordinary people who ski, ice skate, and toboggan, get into a flow state?
I would think they probably have a much better chance than professional or elite athletes. Why is that?
Once you become a professional athlete, there is a great temptation to worry about external things--about success or winning, about making the team, or getting a medal. These interfere with enjoyment.
You find the same thing with musicians in big orchestras. By and large they don't enjoy playing as much as people who play in string quartets or bands or groups. In fact, the leading musicians get their flow from playing in pick-up bands and little quartets when they play after hours or at home. Because there they can really immerse themselves in what they're doing without the distraction of a big audience, or the pressure of doing it well, or needing to impress the critics.It's better if you're a cross-country skier or skater and you do it simply because you enjoy it. If you're an amateur, your full attention is devoted to what you're doing, which is fundamental to a flow state.
Until a couple of generations ago, most people lived either on a farm or had to do physical activities as part of their day. They'd get up at 4:00 o'clock in the morning to milk the cows and then do a lot tasks that involved strong exertion. Plus they didn't have a box that you could just turn on and be entertained. If you wanted entertainment, you had to learn to play an instrument or dance or do something else. That has completely changed and now most things are done for us. That's not a very healthy situation. Can someone get into a flow state watching TV or watching a video game?
Yes. About seven percent of the time spent watching TV, people report something similar to flow: high challenge, high skill and involvement, and concentration. That's usually while they are watching sports events or good drama, or other things that capture a person's total attention. Video games have a higher percentage because they're interactive and they require quick responses. So, yes, you can experience flow there too. But for a lot of people it becomes addictive, and then they do it even though they don't get into flow. It gets harder and harder to enjoy it, yet they spend more and more time doing it. If seven percent is what you found with television, what would be the degree of flow people experience with amateur sports activities?
About 50%, 60%.
Do it because you want to be better than you were before. Push your body to do something that is very difficult to do. Then that becomes like a mantra, or like a ritual, that is fulfilling you personally. Allow the activity to grow you in a new direction. What guidance would you offer to people to increase the chance that they might get into a flow state doing a sport on a weekend like that?
Try out as many different things as possible. Most people let their activities be directed by chance. Somebody invites you over to Squaw Valley, and you learn how to toboggan and it's fun. But you never try down hill or cross-country, or skating. If you have the time and the energy, you should try a little bit of each one until you find one of these activities that really resonate with you. Some people really love the almost hypnotic routine of cross-country where you just move through trees without any drama, any great excitement, but little swishes of down hill and then the hard track. That's what really appeals to them. Others really love the dramatic descent of the Alpine slopes where you spend two minutes on the slope and then an hour going back up.
You should try many different things until you find one that really works for you. Once you do, if you can afford it, if you like downhill, there are so many places around the world where you can try new things, like helicopter skiing in British Columbia or in New Zealand.
Or, you can find the nearest places where you can discover new layouts, new slopes. Every course is different. Check them out. It can become like going on a pilgrimage and communing with new manifestations of the spiritual. Here you are communing with different parts of the landscape and you feel your body becoming part of this place.