These are some excerpts from my Philosophy 102 term paper based on Csikszentmihalyi's study of flow explained in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I've had to shorten it but I think what I've posted here is a good synopsis. Let me know if you have any questions, I have a lot of random factoids running through my head about flow.
Flow Experiences and Taoism: Tools for Happiness
In his studies of the subject, which stemmed from his research into the root of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi found a correlation between people who can control the experience of flow and those who rated their lives as rewarding (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 10). He quantified flow based on a set of common characteristics that subjects used to describe their most enjoyable activities and narrowed it down to a simpler definition: “Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” This is perhaps the most obvious tie that the concept of flow has to Taoist philosophy. The Tao Te Ching strongly emphasizes the importance of acting for the sake of the activities, and not for ulterior motives. The Taoist principle of wu wei is based on this idea (Kardash 1998, 1). Csikszentmihalyi even references wu wei in his work. Flow activities offer a natural way to experience this type of action.
it can be achieved with any activity in as long as it follows a set of criteria. The required elements of “flow” can be separated into eight different “rules.” These must all be present for Csikszentmihalyi to consider it a “flow” experience.
The first characteristic is that flow can only be achieved when the activity is one that a person can accomplish within their current skill-set. Second is that the person doing the activity concentrate fully on what they are doing. The third and fourth characteristics that make flow possible are having challenging goals as well as clear feedback of results. The fifth is that a person must be able to accomplish the task with a deep concentration but also with general effortlessness enabled by high skill development. The sixth characteristic of flow is that the person undertaking the activities feels control of the situation. Flow’s seventh requirement could seem somewhat contrary, as it’s explained that while the concern for the person’s self disappears during the activity, when it ends the person’s sense of self emerges stronger and more “complex” than before. The final characteristic of flow can be summed up in the expression, “time flies when you’re having fun,” because an altered sense of time often accompanies flow experiences (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 49). Some of these characteristics, such as the altered perception of time, are self-explanatory. The more elaborate elements- the fifth and seventh can also be linked to Taoist philosophy.
The fifth characteristic of a flow experience is what first brought the Taoist principle of wu wei to mind as I researched Csikszentmihalyi’s work. He stated that an activity must be undertaken with a “deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 49) He said when someone is participating in an activity at this level of involvement, with a high level of skill, something interesting happens- “People become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 53) In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu describes the Taoist principle of wu wei in a similar manner. He wrote, “Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone.” (Legge 1891) While many people translate wu wei into “non-doing”, Taoists have not interpreted the idea as “inaction”, but as doing something spontaneously, without effort, and as many explain it, “going with the flow.” (Kardash 1998)
Wu wei describes actions that stem from a sense of connection with others as well as a person’s environment (Kardash 1998). In order to accomplish this, a person must be able to abandon their sense of separation from these elements. This description of Taoist philosophy brings us right back to Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow. It is in the seventh criteria of flow experience— for someone to reach a flow state, they must lose their sense of self (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 62).
The loss of “ego” makes a person more connected to their environment. He explained this by saying, “The loss of the sense of a self separate from the world around it is sometimes accompanied by a feeling of union with the environment,” An example of this is the motorcycle gang member he interviewed for a study. The teenager described his experience of riding with his gang like they were all moving as one entity, in complete unity with one another (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 63). Disregarding the nefarious activities this gang member was most likely involved in, this unity is considered desirable in the Tao Te Ching. “When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one embrace, they can be kept from separating.” (Legge 1891) This is one example of how combining flow activities with the philosophy of Taoism can improve the quality of someone’s life.
The other benefits of flow are numerous in the writings of both Csikszentmihalyi and Lao-tzu. In his description of the seventh criteria of flow experiences, Csikszentmihalyi said that although a person loses their sense of self during a flow activity, afterwards the self emerges as “more complex.” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 74) He explained this possible contradiction by defining “complexity.” It is the combination of two opposite mental processes; differentiation, the way humans establish themselves as unique beings, and integration, which is the ability to relate to others, concepts and entities outside of theself. A complex individual is more united with the world around them and in touch with themselves (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 41). This “complexity,” or unification of the mind, is an ideal in Taoist philosophy as well, as seen in this passage—
“There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before heaven and earth.” (Legge 1891)
I’ve personally experienced some of the benefits of flow and can testify that Rand’s story could very likely be a direct result of it. Recently I’ve taken up a unique hobby— hoop dancing. It’s a modern take on the hula-hooping of the 1950’s. While there are “tricks” involved, the main goal of hoop dance is self-expression. When a hoop dancer can combine the moves into a fluid dance, it is called their “flow.” ("Introduction to Hooping" 2003). This was the first experience that I consciously experienced being in flow, and it’s changed my life. I’ve gained confidence and faith in myself and, more importantly, it’s changed how I relate to others and the world around me. When others might have angered me before, I have the ability to refocus my mental processes on staying positive. Because of my experience with flow, I’ve learned how to turn previously boring activities like driving to school or replying emails into enriching games by focusing and giving myself clear goals and feedback.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the person engaged in a flow activity feels a connection to a “system of action greater than what the individual self has been before.” The illustration of his point is a violinist who, after playing harmoniously with her orchestra for hours, starts to hear what she described as the music of the spheres (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 64). Taoism would explain this as the person becoming in touch with the Tao, which is the source of all things (Kessler 2007, 358).
Because of all its benefits, I believe that coupling flow experiences with Taoism could be used as a tool for happiness regardless of a person’s personal beliefs. By harnessing the power of our mental states while in flow and learning to direct our mental processes to produce flow in every day activities, we can live a more enriching life and be closer to the ideal state of being according to Taoism. Through these complimentary ideas, we can learn how to expand our sense of selves and be able to act according to the principle of wu wei while brushing our teeth.
some bibliographic info for those who are interested in researching more-
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York:
Harper Perennial, 2008.)
James Legge, trans., Tao Te Ching. Internet Sacred Text Archive Home. Accessed
December 1, 2010. http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/taote.htm
Kardash, Ted. "Taoism - The Wu-Wei Principle - Part 4." Jade Dragon. 1998. Accessed
November 30, 2010. a href="http://www.jadedragon.com/archives/june98/tao.html%3E">http://www.jadedragon.com/archives/june98/tao.html>;.