“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).
Have you ever felt lost in the moment? In the zone? So fully immersed in a task that you lose your sense of time? Maybe you were painting and suddenly hours had passed or you were taking on moguls while skiing and time seemed to slow as you took each turn.
These timeless moments of peaked ability is called Flow, a theory developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow, a state of optimal learning and intense focus, is achieved when the challenge proportionately meets one’s skills level. Actions and awareness become merged, distractions are excluded from consciousness, there is no worry of failure, and the activity itself becomes satisfying.
“What? Last run? How is it time to go already?” A student who I’ll call Jack, said this after a long day of learning how to snowboard, ending the day on a challenging yet manageable run.
For the first eight months at our school Jack refused to participate in most activities offered, putting forth minimal and sarcastic effort on rare occasions. It was shocking when he agreed to learn how to snowboard. He typically only uttered about five words on most days but as he rode the lift I heard him having an actual, genuine, pleasant conversation. He was laughing and joking throughout the day and let a glimpse of self-confidence show in his eyes. Far from the apathetic and sarcastic boy I normally see, this day, full of falls, soaked through, sore in places he didn’t know he could be sore, he was begging for more. That day he was able to find a balance between challenge and skill, immersing himself in flow.
The next day his parents emotionally shared with his therapist, “that was the first time we have heard our son say he had fun in years!” Since that day, he has engaged in more recreation therapy sessions, has been pleasant on many occasions and has even approached me for conversations. Is our relationship perfect or even super strong? No. But walls have been broken down and a turning point was hit that day, leading us in a positive direction.
If the challenge is too great for the skill level one may experience anxiety, while if the skill is too great for the challenge one falls into boredom or apathy (see image below).
The state of flow can also be applicable when applied to relationships and situations. Times of adversity can be transformed into a challenge rather than a setback and relationships can be strengthened as common interests and hobbies are found, developed, and shared, just as with this youth and myself.
Finding activities and the balance of challenge to skill that lead to flow can be challenging in and of itself, but the payoff is rich. Try new things and see what sparks an interest; you may find that hiking helps you feel alive, or swimming soothes your nerves and allows for distractions to dissipate, or maybe drawing opens a pathway for fulfilling expression. Regardless of the activity, find fulfillment in your life through pursuing opportunities to engage in flow.