It’s not all about personality or psyche, though: you can help yourself achieve flow in a few ways. First, find a buddy. Certain activities are solitary, and if you’re proficient enough to enter a flow state playing chess or writing or cooking, that’s great. But if not, it’s helpful to talk to someone else, to get outside your own head.
Beyond that, there’s awareness. “Probably the best thing is to pay close attention to your own life and your own experiences—keep a diary or, day-to-day, ask yourself, ‘When did I feel best today? When did I really like what I was doing?’” Csikszentmihalyi says. “And if you keep that up for a couple of weeks or so and look at what you’ve written down in those two weeks, then you can begin to ask yourself, ‘Is there a way for me to do more of what I feel good about when I’m doing it? What keeps me from doing it?’ And if you find out what keeps you from doing it, try to do less of that. Very often people are very surprised because they don’t realize that there are kind of little moments in their life when they really feel positive about what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s something completely unexpected.”
From motivation to personality, discover how you can find your flow.
About 20 years ago, Csikszentmihalyi visited a colleague who ran a mental institution in Holland with many schizophrenic patients. One, a 32-year-old woman, had been deemed incurable. Throughout one week, though, she reported two moments during which she felt great. In both cases, she was cutting her nails. The doctors encouraged her to cut the other inpatients’ nails; a couple of months later, she was cutting the staff and doctors’ fingernails, too. About six months later, she left the mental institution to open her own pedicure shop. Mastering this activity—accessing her own flow state—helped her develop an identity.
As a child in Hungary during the Second World War, Csikszentmihalyi found a flow activity of his own, though he didn’t yet know to call it that. “That’s when I learned to play chess, and I learned that when I was playing a game against somebody where I had some chance of winning, it’s not that I felt better, but I didn’t hear bombs falling or things that would normally make me feel bad and I could spend hours doing it,” he says. Now, his research on flow is flow enough for him.
“I get that feeling when I start looking at the numbers that come in from studies,” he says. “I start seeing the patterns and getting excited.”
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