Flow experiences, and what makes a life worth living

Something I’ve heard people say¬†“In life, they say to follow your passions, but I don’t know what those are!”. One way to get some clues on that is to become aware of the times in your life when you’ve had a ‘flow’ experience. Let me explain here what that is.

Being in a state of flow is an extraordinary experience – one’s concentration is total, time passes without awareness, and sometimes one reaches a state of bliss.

The TED talk by Csikszentmihalyi in my last blog post lists the characteristics of a flow experience:

  • Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  • Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  • Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  • A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  • Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

The simplest thing that comes to mind is an expert skier on a very demanding ‘black diamond’ run. The goal is to make it to the bottom still standing, and uninjured. The feedback is constant – you’re either making the turns or you’re flying into the woods. And the balance of challenges to skills comes from the skier choosing a run that matches his skill level. One’s attention is totally devoted to the skiing – no opportunities to worry about some argument you’ve had recently, or whether you’re hungry. Sometimes even a novice skier can achieve this on a run that matches their skill level (though the moment you worry about falling and/or injuring yourself, the flow is gone).


Csikszentmihalyi explain this in terms of positions on a graph, plotting skill level against challenge level. When you’re watching TV, the challenges are minimal, and the skill level needed is zero – you likely feel apathy and/or boredom. If you need to build a fence for the first time, and you’re not very handy, you have high challenge, but low skill: low skill, medium-high challenge leading to worry and anxiety. That expert skier is at high skill and high challenge, and is in flow.

A flow experience does not need to be grand. For some, knitting can be a flow experience. For others, gardening. Solving a sudoku, or other puzzles.

Sometimes, for the lucky few, work provides this. I suspect some accountants have a flow experience as they try to balance the books. Or an investigative reporter breaks a story. Or a chef makes the ultimate souffl√©. Or a teacher presents one of their favorite topics, and really connects with a class, getting an enthusiastic and engaged response. I’ve experienced yoga teachers reaching this.

Former CEO Norman Augustine says “I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world…and being happy while doing it…You have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile…If either of these ingredients are absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work”.

Stop now and reflect on whether there have been moments in your life where you may have had a flow experience. Does this give you clues on what your passions are, and where you may want to direct more of your life’s energy? Does this help you answer Csikszentmihalyi’s question “What makes a life worth living?”.