Ben Heels

Everything I do, all in one place.

Flow [001]: A Series about Relaxed Concentration in Books & Everyday Life

One of the many joys of reading is the feeling you get when an author puts into words something you have thought or experienced—even if it’s the faintest subconscious itch—that you have struggled to articulate yourself. Sometimes it’s as simple as explaining a concept that you couldn’t wrap your head around before, such as in non-fiction. Other times, it’s more abstract; an idea that is never stated directly but is hinted at or explored throughout the book, as is commonly found in long, dense works of fiction. For me, the most recent example of this is what I have come to know as “flow.”

Flow is a state of mind in which one is completely immersed in what they are doing; a state of extremely heightened concentration and focus, one that is achieved by pushing yourself to the limits of your abilities in an activity that you truly love. The term was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. For athletes, this concept is colloquially called being “in the zone” or “in your element.” It’s something I’ve experienced many times before but never knew what it was or what caused it. Now that I recognize what it is, it’s easier for me to identify times I’ve been in the flow state before—and the steps I can take to achieve it again.

I was introduced to Mihaly and the flow state through Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, a book that was making the rounds in the non-fiction pop-psychology world recently. Hari interviews Mihaly as part of his worldwide journey to understand focus and mental clarity. Mihaly first studied flow in painters but quickly found that the psychological phenomenon extended to many different tasks. With painters, he observed that “time seemed to fall away” and that they “appeared to be in a hypnotic trance.” (p54)

Another example of flow that Mihaly shares is of his brother Moricz, who—after surviving a Russian concentration camp in World War II—found a hobby that gave him joy: crystals.

When Mihaly went to his home, it looked like a museum of crystals running from the ceiling to the floor, with special lighting fitted to show off their sparkle. Moricz handed Mihaly a crystal the size of a child’s fist and said “I was looking at this thing just yesterday. It was nine in the morning when I put it under the microscope. Outside, it was sunny, just like today. I kept turning the rock around, looking at all the fissures, the intrusions, the dozen or so different crystal formations inside and around… then I looked up, and thought that a storm must be coming, because it had gotten so dark…then I realized it was not overcast, but the sun had been setting—it was seven in the evening.”

Stolen Focus, p58

Hari’s conversation with Mihaly is incredibly fascinating. Throughout the rest of the chapter, Hari reflects on flow in his daily life, how he experiences it with reading and writing, and the specific steps one needs to take achieve it.

I’ve talked at great length about Stolen Focus both online and (especially) in person with friends, but for now I’ll spare the soapbox for another time; I don’t want to spoil the joy you would get by just reading it yourself. 🙂

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