Depressive states are not simply or even mainly sadness.
They are more centrally a deep form of psychic withdrawal or disengagement from your life.
Thus the importance of engagement comes to the fore in the treatment of depressive states.
An American psychologist who is one of the founding father of positive psychology therefore got the idea to explore the phenomena of profound engagement into an activity, that he named : « flow » as so many of the people that he interviewed described this feeling of fluidity and continuity in concentration and action as a spontaneous flow.
And it happens in different fields.
Csikszentmihalyi first studied these states among jazz musicians.
He found it amazing that these artists could spend hours and hours completely absorbed into their activity, forgetting everything else.
He spent years to study this phenomena, among other people too, such as chess players, surgeons, rock climbers … and established that there were nine characteristics of this altered state of consciousness, that he calls flow, or, due to its pervasive positivity : optimal experience.
So, these nine factors are :
high challenges matched with adequate personal skills;
merging of action and awareness;
concentration on the task at hand;
perceived control of the situation;
loss of self-consciousness;
altered sense of time;
When you are really completely engaged into something, you don’t have enough attention left over to think of your problems at home, nor wonder how your body feels. You sometimes can’t even feel that you are thirsty or sore. Both your identity and your body disappear from your consciousness.
So, flow is really a kind of « ecstasy », originally meaning in Greek : standing to the side of something. Ecstasy became a word for a mental state where you are out of your mundane existence, of your everyday routine : it is like a stepping into another reality.
And this is mainly due to a sense of dissatisfaction towards their daily lives, and depressive states that people turn towards ways to experience some kinds of ecstatic or blissful feelings.
Unfortunately, without any education about how to turn these attempts into positive experiences, they often turns into disruptive ones : taking drugs, having extra wild unsafe sex, binge-drinking or even scarification … Those experiences are damaging for your health and potentially to others’ and may very quickly turn into addictive behaviors that may even threaten the integrity of your very life, or again, of others’.
This is one of the strong assessments of positive psychology that happiness can is a learnable skill, or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts is :
“What I “discovered” was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Experimenting the flow is a dynamic process that requires some organization, knowledge and some effort to start with and that can support the developmental trajectory each individual autonomously builds and follows throughout life, and even contribute to the enhancement of the quality of life of society at large.
Csikszentmihalyi writes about a “psychic compass” that orients psychological selection : this complex and highly structured state of consciousness could contribute to shaping individuals’ developmental pathways and result into great effects for others.
Here is how it works
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first described flow experience in a book titled Beyond Boredom and Anxiety ( 1975
This title will help you understand how to make flow happen, or to identify it when it arises. Some people know how to trigger that state more intuitively than others. Good for you if you are one of them. Even if you happen to be, it might help to increase the precision of your practice to understand this :
Think of the flow state as a channel between boredom and anxiety, that both result from a mismatch between challenges and skills.
If your skills are so over challenged that you simply can’t achieve what you are expected to, this results into anxiety.
On the contrary, if you are over skilled, you will most certainly get bored very quickly.
The optimal situation, in which you are therefore in the flow state is when you are asked to perform slightly more than what your current skills allow you to.
This is when you need an entire focus, and therefore lose yourself in that constructive altered state of consciousness that can occur during very different activities or contexts of daily life, such as arts, work, sports, study, social interactions and crafts, and to every kind of people of different age,
educational level, culture, occupation, and health conditions,
Now, how can the flow be used as a « psychic compass »?
The perception of high challenges promotes the increase in the related skills and increases competence, then, encourages the individual to search for more complex challenges that will require higher skills to be faced. This virtuous cycle fosters development through both refinement of skills and the acquisition of increasingly complex information.
This process, defined as « psychological selection » fosters growth and identity building, in that it orients individuals preferential cultivation of a specific set of relations, goals, interests and values.
Csikszentmihalyi therefore thought it would be a good way to help managers and teachers to make the flow more regularly happen in schools and in the workplace so that it can support the growth of the individuals.
So, to start with, he tried to measure the flow ; there are different ways to do so :
At first, people were regularly asked to answer questions about their current states of mind during the flow on electronic devices but it was not a really good idea as it was actually interrupting the flow.
So, always more sophisticated forms and scales are being elaborated by scholars from all over the world to measure the flow, based on people’s answers, once the experience is over.
What’s been found is that the situation in which one experienced the least flow is watching television ; the next one is being in the bathroom, sitting.
What was also found is that it does not seem to be often in schools that people experience flow …
Years of research are always difficult to turn into guidelines but still there are some things that are constantly proven to foster the flow in the classroom and they are :
Challenging kids… but not too much
Making assignments feel relevant to student’s lives
Setting clear goals and give feedback along the way
Building positive relationships
Fostering deep concentration
Offering hands-on exercises
These guidelines can also work to increase happiness in our every day lives whatever definition of happiness you find is right for you.
Some goals aim for pleasure and comfort and these goals are hedonic, others seek to develop the best in oneself, and these have a eudaimonic nature : in that approach, well-being is more about objectively realizing one’s potential than just experiencing good sensations or feelings.
So, flow is self-fulfilling as it occurs for individuals who skillfully engage in challenging activities that stretch their abilities, which therefore fosters personal evolution.
As flow promotes learning, positive affect, meaning and purpose in life, a sense of transcendence or connection with a greater whole. concentration, and creativity, experiencing it as much as possible during your day will support your psychological well-being, which is generally seen as composed of : autonomy, self-acceptance, sense of purpose, mastery, positive relations, and growth.
Optimal experience can also be considered an hedonic experience as the drop in enjoyment will motivate the individual to re-enter the flow state and imbalance of perceived challenges and/or skills will reduce the quality of the current feeling state.
Due to the inherent hedonic feeling (enjoyment) of maintaining a balance between skills and challenges, flow becomes intrinsically rewarding, or autotelic (I.e an end in itself) Therefore the flow can contribute to your happiness either you chose the hedonic or the eudemonic approach.
Why not try it for yourself? What do you like to do?
Playing the piano?
Creating excel tables?
Whatever it is that can rapture you from disengagement, depressive states, or from any dangerous remedy you may try to overcome them, go for those things you deeply love instead, but that support your health and your growth, and those of others, instead of threatening them.
And remember : key is : always maintaining that balance between your skills and the challenges that you will be facing, and, whatever your situation is, you will be able to enjoy much broader parts of your life, and as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it :
“We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow