Source: Theory of “Flow”

One student is in her room doing her homework. Another is downstairs watching TV. Which one is really enjoying herself? According to Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee), it’s more likely to be the former. If course material is well organised and logically presented, will students learn it? Only if they are motivated, says Csikszentmihalyi. In both cases his answer depends on the extent to which the students are in a state of ‘flow’, a concept that has implications for human happiness in general and teaching G&T students in particular.

What is flow?

In his book of the same name, Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’

Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his professional life to the study of happiness and how we can attain it. As a youth in Europe he met people who had been crushed by their wartime experiences and others who had taken them in their stride. He wondered what could explain this difference. By the early 1960s as a psychology student in the US, he had made a ‘discovery’: happiness doesn’t depend on chance or external events but on our perception of them. As such happiness has to be cultivated. But this does not mean that we should recklessly pursue pleasure. The best moments are not those of passive pleasure but those when we feel exhilarated by achievement – when we are in a state of flow.

Flow first came to Csikszentmihalyi’s attention while he was studying artists for his postgraduate thesis. As they worked the artists seemed to go into a trance-like state. To his surprise he found that the finished product was less important to them than the process of doing the work itself. External rewards were less important than intrinsic pleasure, an observation that went against the grain of psychological thinking at the time.

At first it seemed that this state might be confined to rules-based activities such as games and creative professional activities such as art or music. However, in the following years thousands of interviews by his research team at the University of Chicago and other colleagues around the world revealed that flow was experienced by people from all walks of life and across many different cultures. What people did and why they did it varied immensely, but the quality of the enjoyment produced by investing attention in an activity was remarkably similar.

The research found that when they were asked what made the experience enjoyable, people cited at least one, and often all, of the following factors. Csikszentmihalyi commends them to readers as knowledge that will help them ‘achieve control of consciousness and turn even the most humdrum moments of everyday life into events that help the self grow.’

Flow involves:

•A challenging activity that requires skills: This requires a fine balance: too high a challenge will produce anxiety; too easy an activity will produce boredom.

•Clear goals and feedback: Good, immediate feedback allows the individual to know they have succeeded. Such knowledge creates ‘order in consciousness’.

•Concentration on the task at hand: When one is thoroughly absorbed in an enjoyable activity there is no room for troubling thoughts.

•A sense of control:Here the actuality of being in control is not as important as the subjective sense of exercising control in difficult situations.

•Loss of self-consciousness: The individual feels he or she is merging with the activity.

•Transformation of time:Seconds may seem like hours. Hours might seem like seconds.

Related Pages:
Flowing With Life
Automatic Flow

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