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What makes a life worth living?

In the 1970s, a world-famous psychologist and World War II prisoner, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, had a strong curious drive to answer the question, “what makes a life worth living? He studied countless people carefully searching for how and why people do what they do. What drives them? What is a life well-lived?

If you were to do this study and asked an artist, “what brings you true joy and fulfilment in your life?”, what answer would you expect? It would probably be the satisfaction of seeing the piece of work they spent weeks on finally being completed, right?

Interestingly, across the tens of thousands of people he studied, he found that it was the PROCESS that gave people a true sense of purpose. For the artist, the sense of fulfilment and focus during their painting exceeds the satisfaction of seeing the end-product. When their actions flow seamlessly from one to the next was when they felt at their best. There's more to this experience.

He discovered that during these experiences that people described as fulfilling and brought them true joy, there were several consistent and fascinating descriptions which he compiled together into this following definition.

Csikszentmihalyi describes this state of ‘flowing’, now known as ‘Flow’, as

“Being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like jazz music. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost…The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will repeat the act even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

In short, it was this rich experience of Flow that led to people’s fulfilment and drove them to repeat the activity. Consequently, Csikszentmihalyi wrote the book, ‘Flow: The psychology of optimal experience’.

This research was hugely significant in the post-war shift in the field of psychology.

Psychology up until this point was predominantly focused on “curing” people that were “damaged”. This was largely the case because most funding came from the American government who wanted to cure the affected war veterans. However, when Martin Seligman became President of the American Psychological Association, he changed the orientation of the treatment to focus on the most positive qualities of an individual in what many called ‘positive psychology’.

He and many others believed that to live a rich and fulfilling life, it is not as simple as removing the negatives. We must actively seek out the positive qualities which make up a fulfilling life. In his words “curing the negatives does not produce the positive”.

Of course, many researchers believed that there were more important and pressing issues such as poverty, obesity, or mental illness, which require more time and resources. However, the positive psychologists felt that this perspective was short-sighted and believed that it is often in one’s ability and interest to recognize and employ their strengths that can help to resolve these pressing problems.

Both Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman asserted that happiness could be learned and nurtured by cultivating our signature strengths as opposed to shoring up our weaknesses. Empowering the individual and therefore the community, to become proactive in their mental health, happiness and fulfilment in their lives.

Led by Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, research shifted the profession’s paradigm away from pathology, victimology, and mental illness to positive emotion and virtue.

Csikszentmihalyi explains that “Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind”. This approach echoed the assertion of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia: one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century) that happiness is not an end in itself, rather “a by-product of absorption”.

Since then, Flow experiences have been linked to our most optimal experiences that not only helps us perform optimally from moment-to-moment, but leaves us feeling remarkable and motivated to repeat the experience. This self-determined and intrinsically motivated approach to engagement with tasks and the development of skills accelerates growth and fulfilment.

In the 1970s, in one of the biggest psychological studies ever undertaken spanning over decades, Csikszentmihalyi found that this state was consistent across a wide range of people including and not limited to rock climbers, surgeons, students, jazz musicians, artists, Navaho sheep farmers, Italian grape farmers, elderly Korean women, Nobel Prize winners, Japanese teenage motorcycle gangsters, Detroit assembly line workers, a range of athletes, and many others from different walks of life. Since, Flow has been rigorously tested and confirmed across ages, cultures, activity type, skill level and demographics.

If you are interested in learning and cultivating Flow into your life experiences, we have an excellent team of experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding and teaching flow in others. We offer one-to-one coaching as well as evidence-based online courses updated constantly based on cutting edge flow research. Join our community, become a Flow Seeker.

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