“That was quick, we weren’t even in there 15 minutes,” said my daughter Maggie while walking into the house after her hour and a half ballet lesson. She had resisted going to class, and I was glad that she had not only had fun, but had experienced total engagement or flow, the seeming halt to the passage of time while involved in an activity.
Time stands still when you are so engrossed in an activity that you forget your worries, your fears, your unfinished errands and other activities. For those of us with “to do” lists longer than a 4-year-old’s list to Santa, such interludes are not just reprieves from our busy lives, but bits of nirvana on earth. Yes, “time flies when you’re having fun,” but it also flies when you are experiencing flow.
We live, we die. The question is, how well do we live the lives that we have? “To live means to experience - through doing, feeling, thinking,” according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Finding Flow,” (Basic Books, 1997, New York). He is best known for contributing the concept of flow to psychology.
Flow, “the sense of effortlessness action..in moments that stand out” as among the best in your life. Athletes often refer to being “in the zone,” religious mystics call it the state of ecstasy and artists call it rapture. If life is experience, and flow represents the best moments in our lives, it follows that one would want to create more flow, thereby creating one’s best life.
But how? How can we recreate the moments where everything finally comes together almost, but not quite, effortlessly? How can we make time appear to stand still, with all the pieces fitting together, almost as if being drawn together by an unseen hand?
In “Authentic Happiness,” (Free Press, 2002, New York), Dr. Martin Seligman asks, “When does time stop for you? When do you want to find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, and never wanting it to end?” Such moments, according to Seligman, occur when you are in a state of flow.
Think back over the past week and consider when time flew by, when you were so totally absorbed in what you were doing that time had no meaning. For me this often happens while reading, or writing.
Flow is notable not just for the happiness that one experiences during the event, but for the reflection and satisfaction one feels afterwards, the ability to look back and say, “that was fun,” whether it was closing a contested business deal, winning a tennis match or rearranging a closet.