The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as: ‘a state of optimal functioning and performance in which your whole being is engaged and all your qualities are being used completely‘. Everything inside of you, your thoughts, feelings, emotions, intentions and actions are aligned in the same direction. Therefore you move fluently and with minimal effort in that direction. In Buddhism they talk about the state of ‘effortless effort’ and athletes know this as being ‘in the zone’. Things seem to go almost automatically and all your qualities, talents, and abilities are being used optimally.
However you call it, if things ‘flow’ in your life, it seems like everything is right and falls exactly into place. That you are fully aware and everything seems part of a harmonious symphony. When there is flow in your life you function optimally and automatically do exactly what is needed and the things don’t seem to cost you any effort. It is like driving on a road where all the traffic lights turn green as soon as you approach them.
Also you probably recognise these moments or periods in your life. Or those sport matches in which everything you do seems to work out and whatever it is that happens, it goes with almost no effort and with the perfect timing. Undistracted by the goal and only focused on what you are doing in that exact moment. In those moments every obstacle is nothing more than a challenge and you even do things you weren’t aware of being capable of!
Out of flow
If only it was always like that. During our life we are inevitably confronted with moments or periods that things do not flow like that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The moments we are ‘out of the zone’ and experience resistance, help us grow and develop to being a more complete human. One that can thrive on experience instead of only knowledge.
Living in flow doesn’t mean that there are no challenges in life anymore or that life has to go by without problems. It has to do with how you move through life with those and everything that happens, that you can surf on the waves and widen your perspective in a way that all that happens supports your process of growing and developping and you stay on your path in life and towards becoming the most optimal version of yourself.
Sometimes we get stuck though. Is our life defined by physical or mental problems and do we become side tracked. In our current society we are often strongly influenced in what is good for us and what we should do. Because of all that pulls at us and the endless options we outrun ourselves easily. The surpassing our boundaries even leads us to being depressed or burned-out and not being able to get anything done anymore.
It has become normal that we are being lived by our busy schedule. Having a very busy life, often is even seen as a sign of success. The question is if that’s correct. It easily leads to getting caught up in life and rarely reflect anymore about what is really important in your life. What it is that makes you happy in life. If you ask someone what brings them real happiness, joy and energy, they often don’t really have a direct answer. How different is that with kids. They can tell you exactly and straight away. It doesn’t take long before they become culturally conditioned and in contact with what their environment thinks that’s good for them. The influence of the well meaning parents (study for a job that pays well), commercial advertisements (buy our product and become happy) and the fictitious world of social media, make that they become confused about what makes them happy in life and the goals they should pursue.
Under social pressure and job expectancy and hight of income, young adults often choose an education that is ‘good’. Also they consume where possible because it gives them a short dose of happiness and that is what is constantly stimulated online and by the environment. That leads to a lifestyle that costs money and with possible debts of education, the pressure of taking the best job available becomes big. Even if it isn’t one that is in line with their passion. The bills have to be paid after all. Also it brings stability, because the enormous amount of options available in work and education are for a lot of people more confusing, stressful and threatening, than that it gives them a sense of freedom. Under influence of all the pressure, input and expectations, a lot of people seek stability and security nowadays. That even leads to staying in situations that lead to unhappiness and don’t resonate at all. The security of knowing what to expect, is bigger than the fear for the unknown. This leads to people staying in jobs or relationships even when it almost only leads to stress, restlessness and unsatisfying situations. Next to blindness for what actually brings happiness, passion and energy, it leads to even more distance to being where you really would like to be in life and it gets in the way of development towards the ‘right’ things.
Of course there is nothing wrong with being succesfull and striving for a good career. When it becomes mandatory to feel good, we have a problem. Because a lot of people don’t know anymore what they really want in life, we get stuck inside of ourselves. Which leads to a downward spiral to your achievements and energy. Breaking the cycle and bringing back the energy in your life becomes harder and harder.
Creativity and being ‘in the zone’ isn’t something you can force yourself into and isn’t the result of just trying harder and forcing yourself to have to do stuff. That has the opposite effect and is a recipe for burn-out. The solution is finding the way back to yourself. That is all about reconnecting with your own motivations and preferances. Often you hear that you should trust and follow your feelings and emotions for that. They might be good indicators on where you can develop yourself, but not how to progress as a person. Your feelings and emotions make you eat and drink unhealthy stuff, chose Neflix over meditation and reacting from emotion mostly doesn’t lead to closer connections with the ones around you. They do often lead to things that you hope that others won’t find out of and if you see them in others, you ask yourself what is wrong with them. It is all about following your intuition, your inner wisom. This is always spot on and never puts you in a wrong direction, for you and your surroundings. Intuitively nobody will harm others or themselves. It helps you to make the right choices.
Flow is something that emerges when the circumstances are there and the things that prevent it from happening dissolve. Just as happiness and relaxation, you cannot force them to happen either. Flow means that the energy in your life flows. It doesn’t mean that you go with where the mass of the people go. It means you follow your own path, the one that feels best for you, even if this isn’t in line with what the people around you or society thinks or says is best. By doing this feeling tired, the seeking state and being stressed, turns into a state of balance, calmness, overview and energy.
What drives you?
In our society success often is measured by career, making a lot of money and consuming. Of course there is nothing wrong with a good job and a high income. Losing yourself in living to work isn’t the solution though to being happy in life. Or like this Hollywood-star said:
‘I hope everybody could get rich and famous and get everything they ever dreamed of, so they could find out for themselves that it is not the answer’ – Jim Carrey
A century ago also one of the smartest people in history shared his theory about happiness. When, shortly after winning the Nobel price, he didn’t have any change with him to tip a boy that carried his suitcase, he gave him a piece of paper with the following text:
‘A calm and modest life brings more happiness than chasing success and all the restlessness that comes with that’ – Albert Einstein
The handwritten note was auctioned in October 2017 for 1,1 million euro.
Under the influence of commerce and the many social expectations nowadays, people often lose their personal direction in life. Lose the focus on – or space for – the things they want to do most in life and obstacles emerge that withhold you from being truly happy.
The Australian nurse Bronnie Ware asked people on their dying bed for years what their biggest regret in life was. The answer she heard most was that they didn’t manage to stay true to themselves and lived too much to the expectations of others.
I also worked for many years with people in the ultimate stage of their lives and also from personal experience I can confirm that no one thinks at their death bed: ‘I wish I had spend more time behind a screen or at the office’. The most important things in life are no on your calendar.
Towards your primairy life goal
Being happy is the primary goal in the life of every human being. That doesn’t automatically make it our primary focus though. This is because we get distracted by the things that happen around us and our conditioned response to it and the expectations and pressure of others because that is where we get our temporary and short feelings of happiness. But also because we are biologically not installed to strive for happiness.
Our strongest primary drive is survival. That is why our attention is drawn quicker and more often towards negative than positive things because these are a potential threat. Physically we nowadays don’t have to worry that much about our survival anymore. We aren’t often in life threatening situations. Mentally the survival is greater than ever and often we are fighting to keep ourselves standing and being seen, as well in real life as in the digital one. Stress is the most important result of that. That is why our survival mechanism is still very active and does it distract us in a string way of pursuing and doing the things that contribute to our happiness.
It takes focus and overview to free ourselves from the ‘ratrace’ of society and to direct the attention towards the path that suits you and makes you happy. Something that is very well possible while functioning normally in our society. It is a matter of clarity and focus towards the right things. If you fill your life with things that make you happy and give you energy, life goes easy and fluent. This way focus leads to flow.
Intuitively you know what you want in life. The challenge is to not let this be overruled by the noise and expectations in our ‘head’. Often this happens because we don’t trust our intuition and go for the rational approach. Or that the signals of our intuition don’t even reach the surface because of the internal noise. The head says you are doing well because you are doing what is expected of you, but the heart knows that this isn’t what makes you truly happy and isn’t what you actually want to do. We have become very good at rationalising as human beings, but we are less rational than we often think we are. What we really want and are attracted to, is determined by how we feel. That is also exactly where commercials and advertisements are focussed on. They don’t try to convince us rationally, they want to trigger a feeling.
To get back to flow is to bring the focus to that what resonates with you, where your drive and passion come from. With the right focus you’ll get into flow automatically.
Often it isn’t easy to discover what it is that drives you. It seems so obvious, but sometimes we are so strongly or long distracted from it, that we can’t get to it anymore. If there is as well a low energy level, the clarity and creativity often are so low that you can’t see your way out of it. A little push in the right direction is then just what you need.