Tag Archives: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Don’t Feel Guilty for Finding Meaning in Your Life

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Meaning

Catching Air

“Women feel guilty for being in flow,” according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Men don’t ever feel that way.” I’ve been thinking about this comment ever since my interview with Mihaly yesterday, when he pointed out this vital gender difference in the pursuit of happiness.

Flow, for those that didn’t hear the show yesterday (it’s not too late, click here to listen; I’ll wait), happens when you are completely absorbed in the moment. The task is challenging, time slows down, you are totally focused, and the reward is the activity itself. In a word: your best moments. This is what gives your life meaning.

Which leads me to this question: Guilty? Women feel guilty for finding meaning in their lives? It sounds pretty ridiculous when you say it like that.

First a little context: Earlier I’d asked Mihaly a question about flow personality. Are some personality types more likely to get into flow than others? His comment was interesting. Individuals that are too self-conscious to lose themselves in an activity rarely get into flow. (I was thinking about teenagers here.)

Only later did he mention in an anecdote how often he encounters women when he gives his talks that say, “isn’t the pursuit of flow selfish?”

Gah.

Crystal_Mountain_Ski_Queens

Queens of the Hill

Granted, most of us have pretty busy lives. Most of us have others relying on us. Most of us don’t even have enough time to brush our teeth, let alone search for moments of freedom and transcendence.

But we should make time.

We all should make time to find flow NOT because it makes us better mothers, more enthusiastic partners or more capable employees/business owners/etc.

We should find flow because it makes life worth living. Get that? Flow states are what we live for.

I hear myself justifying my pursuit of happiness by how it will affect others. I’ll be a nicer person if I can go hike the King right now; I’ll make a better wife and step-mom if I get a few hours to work on my book this morning. I’m going to paddle the SUP for an hour, and then I will be nicer, kinder, calmer. Well, guess what?

That’s bullshit.

Instead, I should be finding flow activities because that’s what I want to do and it makes me happy, not because it will then make me a better person for others. As it turns out (hello?!) I’m not here for the exclusive betterment of those around me. I’m here for me.

Snow Angel

Snow Angel

Well, duh.

Men don’t feel guilty for being in flow. Why? Because its not a normal human reaction. That means that women, too, can shake off this pesky guilt and get after it. We can stop justifying our best moments and just say, “I’m going surfing because that’s what I want to do.”

Sure, when you get back from your surfing session (or making snow angels, or skiing or watching a sunset, or whatever gives you flow) you will probably make lunch for your kids. You’ll do all the other important tasks in your life, and you’ll probably be happy to do it. But just remember, that’s not why you need to follow your flow state. Flow is for you. Period.

So go out there today and find some flow and don’t justify it based on how it will help your spouse/kids/parents. Do it because it will make you happy and give your life meaning.

And that is reason enough.

Finding Flow in Action Sports

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Kim_Kircher_The_Edge_Radio_Extreme_Sports

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Action Sports should adopt Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. They should claim him as one of their own, putting his face on bumper stickers and splashing his book covers on websites, blogs and twitter hashtags. Because Csikszentmihalyi, pronounced CHEEK-sent-me-HY-ee, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, invented the idea of flow.

What does flow have to do with action sports, you might ask?

Everything.

Csikszentmihalyi studies happiness. Flow provides our most optimal experiences. And almost everything about action sports is about getting into flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, certain things have to happen for us to be in a flow state:

  • flow-theory-what-makes-a-good-game-77ai10fSkills must match the challenge: too easy and you get bored, too hard and you feel overwhelmed
  • Action and awareness merge: you become “one” with the wave/snow/single-track/wing
  • Feedback is immediate and unambiguous: you fall, you die (or else you get really, really hurt)
  • Concentration is essential: see feedback above
  • Sense of control: oddly you gain a sense of control even in the midst of what might appear a chaotic situation
  • Time either slows down or speeds up
  • Loss of self-consciousness: you focus solely on the moment and forget about your ego, your bills, your life outside the moment
  • The experience is autotelic: you are skiing, riding, flying, etc not for an external reward but solely for the experience itself
flow-the-psychology-optimal-experience

Csikszentmihalyi’s bestselling book FLOW

Have you ever lost yourself in the moment? If you’ve ever felt flow you know what I’m talking about. Skiing a hard line or mountain biking down a tight single-track requires intense concentration and skill. Time slows down, consequences are high, and we completely lose ourselves in the activity. We are in flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wants you to feel flow more often.

Flow=happiness. And I bet that flow is the biggest motivation for pushing ourselves in our sports. I know that’s true for me. I’m not out there for the glory or to gather sponsorships (not that sponsors are kicking down my door to sign me). I’m out there for the experience itself. I’m out there for flow.

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Join me this week on The Edge Radio as I talk to the father of flow theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about  flow, creativity and getting out on the edge. The show airs live Wednesday 8am pacific and will be available as a podcast a few hours after it airs. You don’t want to miss this one. Seriously.

The Happiness of Being in the Flow

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Southback Hike

Southback Hike

Want to be truly happy? Submerse yourself in something. Anything. As it turns out, we are happiest when we are focused. In the zone, going with the flow, in the moment, call it what you will. But when you are so focused that nothing else can intrude, then you find happiness.

It’s that simple.

Maybe this is why I love to ski. I love to stand on top of a steep chute, drop in and focus only on the feel of the snow beneath my skis. Yesterday I skied a chute called Brain Damage at Crystal. While the name of the chute is intimidating and the entrance is a no fall zone, in reality it isn’t that difficult. It’s enough to make me focus, but not so steep that I have to talk myself into it.

During those first few turns I bobbled a little, catching the inside of my right edge and chattering along the firm surface. I recovered before I even realized what had happened and continued through the narrowest part before traversing over to a wind-buffed Shank’s Chute and skied all the way to the bottom. I thought of nothing else but the skiing: the consistency of the snow, how it started like firm chalk and gave way to a soft, carve-able palate; the way my skis arced from one side of the chute to another, the edges cutting tracks across the raised sides of the chute; the rock partway down the chute that I hopped over gingerly and stopped thinking about the moment I passed over it.

When I got to the bottom, I didn’t look back at my run. I just traversed towards the chairlift with a smile on my face. I was happy. For the few minutes it took me to complete the run, no other thoughts intruded. I did not think about work or the writing assignments in my inbox. There was no room in my brain for how I would juggle my schedule in the upcoming week, or the interviews I had scheduled or the millions of megabytes of brain space being occupied by all the things I wasn’t doing at that moment.

When I'm in the flow, I don't even care if I'm in the back seat.

When I’m in the flow, I don’t even care if I’m in the back seat.

I recently finished reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE, and I’ve been practicing being in Flow, as he calls it. Flow moments have a few prerequisites.

  • There is a balance between challenge and skill. You won’t feel in flow if you’re either a) scared out of your mind or b) bored. Brain Damage is anything but boring for me. Nor is it so difficult that I’m unable to drop in without wetting my pants. 
  • Feedback is immediate. When I nearly fell at the top of Brain Damage, I received clear feedback. Pay attention. Get your skis underneath you, stupid.
  • The goals are clear. There’s no equivocation. The goal of skiing a steep chute is to get to the bottom with a modicum of style and all of your limbs intact.
  • Action and awareness are merged. This is my favorite prerequisite. My personality vacillates between action and reflection. This is fine, but sometimes I get tired of analyzing everything. When I cannot think beyond the action of my next turn, I’m happy. Truly, truly happy.
  • Time is distorted. A few minutes can seem like an eternity, or hours can whiz by without realizing it. My run yesterday, which lasted less than a minute, felt much longer. I can still recall it in it’s entirety. Even without the help of a helmet cam.
  • Self-consciousness and fear of failure fall away. For the length of my run down Brain Damage yesterday, I did not once worry if I was sticking my butt out too far. When I almost fell, I didn’t consider the consequences or overthink my run. Instead I made the required moves to get back on track and continued down.
  • The experience is autotelic, or worthwhile in itself. I didn’t look back at my tracks, take photos or videos and I didn’t post my run on Facebook (although yes, I’m using it here on my blog as an example of happiness. That doesn’t count). The doing of the thing (not the sharing of the thing) was worthy all by itself.

I, for one, can be in my head a little too much. It is these moments of intense focus that bring me back. As both a writer and ski patroller, I get to experience these flow moments as part of my job, when I’m not over-thinking, I’m simply a part of a larger picture. And that makes me very happy.