Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a man obsessed with happiness.
For more than three decades, he has been trying to identify with some scientific exactness what people mean when they say they are enjoying themselves, how they achieve that enjoyment and how the successful ones manage to keep themselves from falling out of it. But more precisely, Csikszentmihalyi (which is pronounced Chick-SENT-me-hi, for the record) finds himself focusing on one aspect of human experience in particular—and that’s something he calls “flow.”
“Regardless of the culture, regardless of education, there are seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: You know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a TED Talk. “Once these conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
Achieving true happiness sounds kind of confusing, right? Good news: It’s not. Stripped down to its simplest form, the state of flow is actually something we’ve all experienced. Otherwise known as being “in the zone,” imagine the times you’ve participated in a challenging exercise or worked on a difficult project. These were probably moments in which your mind became so entirely absorbed in the activity that you “forget yourself” and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now.
In order for a state of flow to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging with clear goals towards success. Interestingly, flow is often characterized by the absence of emotion—a complete loss of self-consciousness. But in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating, and Csikszentmihalyi believes that flow is highly correlated with happiness itself. Studies also show that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem and even great health.
In the end, the million dollar question we all want an answer to is this: “What makes life worth living?” In this TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi recommends looking to find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of flow.