A recent post on New York Magazine’s website gushed about ultra-marathoners who run in a state of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of people who are focused, productive, and happy. According to the author, even casual runners recognize flow as “getting in the zone, cranking out your best stuff, and just being awesomely lost in a creative process.” Endorphin-induced feelings of accomplishment, focus, and strength produce in the runner a “near-spiritual feeling of Zen and nirvana,” the author asserts. The premise seems simple: run, experience flow, and you’ll become happier and more productive.
But if you read Csikszentmihalyi’s work, you’ll find it’s not that easy.
Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
In his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as:
the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
He elaborated in an interview with Wired, explaining that flow is:
being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
Speaking as a runner, I’ve experienced flow-like states on occasion. For example, during a mountain trail race, a difficult single-track path suddenly opened onto a wide carriage road with a gentle downhill grade, and all of a sudden I was speeding past other runners, seemingly without effort. I’ve also felt the sensation of flow at work, for example, when pulling together a big project on time and under budget.
It would be nice to spend more time in flow, but as Csikszentmihalyi explains, the frequency with which individuals experience this state depends on both their personalities and the environment. A critical precondition for flow is the balance between the challenge involved in a task and the individual’s skill. If the task’s too easy, we’re bored. If it’s too hard, we become anxious.
As a runner, I can relate to boredom: think long flat stretches of road with no sights or even worse, the treadmill. As for anxiety, for every downhill, sooner or later the grade turns back up, and in the mountains it seems the slopes get steeper the higher you go — and if you leave the trails and bushwhack through the woods, the vegetation seems to get more dense, barbed, and tangled as the slope reaches the steepest point, at which point, your speed diminishes until you are barely crawling — and any sense of flow is replaced by irritation and frustration — and then as you glance at your watch, frustration can turn to anxiety and even panic.
Getting caught in impassable terrain reminds me of the dread that accompanies a new project at work, the kind that at first glance seems easy, but then with each step along the way, it becomes apparent that the process will be more complex than first envisioned, and more resources will be required, and soon the timeline to completion is stretching beyond the horizon.
Why can’t we always be in flow?
To answer this question, let’s put aside the psychology for a moment and think about the word itself. Water “flows” downhill under the force of gravity. In the lingo of thermodynamics, flow is an example of the displacement of mass by force, which is the definition of mechanical work. In this light, “flow” is a metaphor for getting work done.
“Flow” is also associated with smooth and orderly movement, in contrast with the word “turbulence,” which implies roughness, disorder, and chaotic patterns. Thus flow can be thought of as an orderly process — the opposite of the term “entropy,” which refers to the inherent trend of all systems towards uncertainty and disorder.
As these metaphors imply, we experience “flow” when solving problems through an orderly mental process. It may seem effortless in those situations where challenges and skills are well-matched, but nonetheless flow is a form of mental work. Csikszentmihalyi explains:
When we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness— a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.
When the task at hand doesn’t require much attention, we experience entropy in the form of boredom. When the task overwhelms our capabilities, we experience entropy in the form of anxiety. It may even be the case that just as a mechanical engine can’t be 100% efficient (some energy must dissipate as heat), our minds may only be able to harness a limited portion of our psychic energy to create intentionally ordered thought, with the remainder dissipating as random impulses, fantasies, or distractions. In this case, battling entropy is an unavoidable aspect of mental life, and sustaining focus requires constant effort.
Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi’s message, which echoes the ancient philosophers of Greece, Rome, and India, is that to achieve happiness, “we must learn to achieve mastery over consciousness itself.” Otherwise we “become helpless playthings of impersonal forces.” Self-mastery means not only seeking out those flow-enabling tasks with the right challenge/skill balance, but also developing the strength of mind to sustain focus during periods that would otherwise leave us anxious or bored. And there’s nothing easy about this: Csikszentmihalyi believes this kind of mindset requires lofty goals, deliberate training, constant practice.
To be sure, one may experience intermittent states of “flow” (or “runner’s high”) at certain points during a long run, but the real thrill comes in reaching the finish line of a difficult race or experiencing the gradual improvement of regular training. The real story is not endorphins or Zen-like feelings, but rather constant hard work, unremitting effort, the ability to manage discomfort, the determination to keep moving forward, and unwavering commitment to goals. And this is true not only for running, but for much of what’s important in life, don’t you think?