I have been somewhat of a wayward soul over the last year.
I feel pressure that people want me to decide what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Most of that pressure comes from myself, I guess.
I’ve decided that whatever I choose to do needs to keep me as happy as I am these days. I can be fulfilled by many different things because I see value in growth via experience. Former IFAST coach Zach Moore was the first person to shed light on the necessity of happiness to me a few years back, and it has really stuck with me.
Happiness has recently been one of my topics of interest, especially after learning a few things about the inner workings of the brain. Two close friends from separate walks of life suggested I read up on the flow experience and the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MEE-hy CHEEK-sent-me-HY-ee). I recently read his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“, and fell in love.
Interesting side note: I am trying a new note taking system where I write each point down on a note card. I wrote 31 different note cards for this book, and credit the author on every one, so it is very unlikely that I will ever misspell his monster of a name again.
The subtitle for the book is a great representation of its contents. What does it mean to experience something optimally? Maybe if we dive into it I can figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
Consciousness is Reality
The basic premise of the book is that consciousness is reality. Reality is only what we perceive. We may experience the same events as someone standing next to us, but perceive what’s happening totally different.
Take the gym, for example. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched someone deadlift and thought it looked great, only to hear the lifter tell me how bad it was. We have, for the most part, experienced the same thing, but our realities are completely different.
The trick to optimal experience is to influence our own consciousness to modify reality.
This doesn’t mean we should live in a delusional world, and it especially doesn’t mean we should live in a glass bubble. But I won’t let a bad event keep me down. I did that exercise poorly, so what? I’ll just try something different next time. Now I’ve learned something and grown from my experience. More on that later.
“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”
What is Optimal Experience?
To me, this means making the most out of your time. Live, don’t simply exist.
A section of the book compares pleasure to enjoyment (p. 45). Pleasure is akin to restoring balance. I receive pleasure from drinking water if I need to hydrate, but I usually do not enjoy drinking water. It is simply something I need to do. Drinking water helps maintain order in my body, but does not produce psychological growth. If I have traveled all over the world and tasted water from everywhere, drinking water may be an enjoyable activity because I can distinguish between the subtleties. I have conditioned my taste buds to detect every aspect of water. This one is salty. This one tastes more like metal. This one is smooth. In this case, I am challenging my body to push itself beyond it’s limits.
This is what makes an experience a “flow experience”. You can probably already draw parallels to other activities, like eating or drinking coffee, though many activities can put you in flow as long as they require deep concentration. You achieve flow by pushing yourself to focus on a realistic challenge. You don’t achieve flow by listening to a sitcom while scrolling through your Facebook news feed on your phone.
Well, I guess that rules out Couch Potato as a career choice, though Trophy Husband is still on the table.
“If the functions of the body are left to atrophy, the quality of life becomes merely adequate, and for some even dismal. But if one takes control of what the body can do, and learns to impose order on physical sensations, entropy yields to a sense of enjoyable harmony in consciousness.”
“Flow” (1990), p. 95
After a flow experience, you grow; the way you organize your consciousness has become more complex.
There are two branches to complexity: differentiation and integration. So if I am in flow while reading “Flow”, I feel more differentiated (I feel more unique and intelligent) and I feel more integrated (I understand myself better and feel a link to others in society).
If I become differentiated without integration, I become a narcissist.
If I become integrated without differentiation, I lack autonomy.
If I am to develop complexity, I must find a challenge on which to focus my attention. I must also block out distractions (again with the Facebook). Attention is so important because it determines what will appear in consciousness. It determines reality.
Now when I look for things to do, I’m looking for things that will make me grow. If I grow, I stay happy.
“Attention can be invested in innumerable ways, ways that can make life either rich or miserable.”
“Flow” (1990), p. 33
(Auto = self) + (telos = goal)
This word represents intrinsic motivation. You feel a self-driven purpose for doing what you choose to do.
Teaching to make productive members of society is not an autotelic experience. You are being driven by an outcome.
Teaching to interact more with children, on the other hand, is an autotelic experience. Something about working with kids makes you more complex—develops you. You are being driven by the journey. Csikszentmihalyi’s points here heavily overlap Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets.
I can become an autotelic personality by setting aside selfconsciousness. When I was at summer camp years back, a speaker comes in on the first night and tells the group that if you’re going to enjoy the camp experience, you need to set aside two things:
- The fear of failure
- The fear of what other people think
That has stuck with me for the longest time. I just need to not worry? Is this the secret to living life?
Failing to worry does not mean I sit back and do nothing. I still desire competence and confidence. I do things. Any things. All things. To grow. To experience life optimally.
Do everything… maybe that’s the revelation I’ve been looking for.
I have only shown you some of my own interpretations of “Flow”. There is much more information that I left out. I highly suggest reading it.
Lance Goyke is a lifelong learner and certified strength and conditioning specialist at IFAST. He runs his own website at www.lancegoyke.com.