On Flow States, Peak Performance, and The Pursuit of Fulfilling Work
How the technology era has set the stage for helping us hack our flow
What makes life worth living? What makes us happy?
The ancient Greeks, starting with Aristotle, pondered endlessly over such questions. They concocted the Greek term “eudaimonia”, commonly translated to “happiness” or “welfare”. Eudaimonia has since been used by philosophers and psychologists alike to explore and define happiness.
Eudaimonia is about individual happiness; according to Deci and Ryan (2006: 2), it maintains that:
“…well-being is not so much an outcome or end state as it is a process of fulfilling or realizing one’s daimon or true nature — that is, of fulfilling one’s virtuous potentials and living as one was inherently intended to live.”
Despite our attempts over the past few centuries to solve the mystery behind what makes us happy, we are now in the middle of a mental health epidemic.
According to the World Health Organization, a reported 264 million people suffer from depression. Meanwhile, Gallup polls report that only 15% of the world’s one-billion full-time workers are engaged at work. If we consider this with the fact that the average person spends 35–44 hours per week at work out of around 100 waking hours, then that’s over 40% of our time spent disengaged and unhappy.
This is an incredibly tragic waste of human time and potential.
We need not look at the statistics to know that how most humans live out their lives is not attuned to what makes us happy.
We have all heard countless stories of mid-life crises, mediocrity, and overall disengagement from daily life that has plagued generation after generation since the industrial era. Most adults spend the entirety of their lives doing mundane work that is a disservice to the full spectrum of human creativity and cognitive potential.
It’s no secret that a life driven by boring and unfulfilling work, material desires, instant gratification, and leisurely time dedicated towards activities like TV addiction, does not make us happy.
The recognition that you have spent most of your time — in this one precious life — adding value to society in a way that is dissatisfying can be deeply troubling for both the human psyche and sense of self-worth.
Now, for most of human history, we had no choice but to live this way. We had to work in factories and do routine, mundane, unsatisfying work, because if we didn’t, who would? The trends of the industrial era shaped the way we work, characterized by top-down management, the infantilization of adult workers, and productivity outcomes designed to meet societal rather than individual needs.
But today, we live in a different era. The 21st century has welcomed the onset of the 4th industrial revolution, a marked change in how we live and work. The development of technologies like robotics and machinery has allowed us to move away from the factory, while the rise of the information era has provided us with an abundance of choice in the palm of our hands.
What that means for us today is that we have a revolutionary opportunity ahead of us: to redefine work itself, to own what an individual human beings contribution to society is, and to choose to do work that is more closely aligned with our needs, motivations, and most importantly, capabilities. Today, many of us are fortunate enough to decide how to live our lives in a way that makes us happy.
In other words, we now have the opportunity to enable more individuals to achieve peak psychological states in various contexts. Within the realm of humanistic and positive psychology exists a new-age movement to understand how better humans can achieve self-actualization and their full potential. The concept of “flow” defines this experience. Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered one of the founders of positive psychology, was the first to identify and research flow. In his seminal book on “Flow”, Mihaly writes:
“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 a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.
So let’s explore what flow is, and how it can help each of us individually lead better lives.
What is “flow”?
Flow is a state of mind in which an individual becomes fully immersed in an activity. Flow is characterized by a sense of being so engrossed in the activity at hand that one loses one’s sense of time and space. In a flow state, things like the outcome of the task become irrelevant. Instead, the practice of “doing” the task is what makes it flow. Flow states allow individuals and teams to enter states of “peak performance”. The Navy SEALs and extreme adventure sports enthusiasts are well known for being able to achieve peak performance by tapping into the power of flow.
As I write this, I’m in a flow state — no distractions, no immediate concern with an outcome of how this article will turn out, and no real indication of what’s happening in the external world.
As Mihaly writes, in flow,
“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.
A flow state occurs when your skill level and the challenge at hand are equal. It’s what happens when people are “in the zone”.
It’s the experience that athletes have when they’re performing, that pianists have when playing the piano, and that leaders have when giving talks and speeches to the public.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that flow has a direct impact on one’s sense of well-being. In fact, the experience of flow in everyday life has been shown to give rise to creativity and self-actualization, both key factors that improve the quality of life.
Given that most people still work regular 9 to 5s, or work for someone else, my view is that inducing a flow state in the workplace can have a dramatic impact on both productivity and happiness levels. Ultimately, human labor and time are the only things that really matter — and optimizing them can not only benefit the individual but society at large, through increased levels of productivity. Because we have leveraged technology to be a liberating tool, an increasing number of organizations now have the opportunity to automate whatever can be automated, while humans are left to hack their flow in a way that benefits them, their organization, and greater society.
The Existing Problem That Flow Can Help Solve
According to Gallup Polls, only 38% of workers in the United States are engaged — i.e., highly enthusiastic about and committed to their work in the workplace. The remaining 62% are either entirely actively disengaged or not engaged.
That’s an astronomical number of people out there who are doing work that they don’t want to be doing. Philosophically, this is of course an issue. Since the very beginning human beings have been trying to figure out the recipe for “eudaimonia” or human flourishing — we have always been in the pursuit of happiness.
But practically too, this poses a huge detriment to society. In the US alone, Disengaged employees are responsible for an estimated $450 to $550 billion annually nationwide.
The logic here is simple: a disengaged employee is likely to have decreased productivity, leave their existing job, and have a negative impact on the workplace culture.
In traditional economic theory, we measured productivity (output) in terms of inputs such as capital and labor. We still attempt to measure the diminishing returns of adding additional labor — for instance to factory lines. But today, with an ever-evolving landscape of work, in economic terms, somehow organizations failing when it comes to tapping into the power of human labor.
Flow provides “order to consciousness”.
Most of us spend most of our days drowning in worry, anxiety and preoccupied with daily trivial concerns. This is because, in many ways, our minds have not evolved to deal with a life of comfort and abundance. For most of human history, we spent our time in the pursuit of our basic survival — searching for food, water, and shelter.
Today, these basic physiological needs, as depicted in Maslow’s infamous Hierarchy of Needs, are being increasingly met for most of us. Those of us who live in urbanized, privileged cities gain access to basic necessities for survival. Technology, as they say, has the power to democratize and dematerialize, giving more of us access to more of everything. Today, a farmer in Africa has access to more information and opportunity in the palm of his hands than even the most elite and richest members of centuries prior could have dreamed of.
All of this leaves us with two things: one, an abundance of choice, and two, an abundance of free time. Suddenly, a larger portion of society has the time and opportunity to contemplate the purpose of their own existence, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Of course, many people have turned to leisurely activities that provide instant gratification or an easy escape. Our addiction to watching TV is one indication of this. While movies and shows can be an edifying art form from which we learn things, most people just come home from work and mindlessly flit Netflix, looking for the next soap opera to binge-watch as an escape from the stresses of work. A glance at this kind of lifestyle points to the fact that not only are most of us disengaged during work hours, but we also spend a significant amount of time disengaged during our leisurely hours.
Of course, understanding flow, or the science behind peak states and peak performance, can help us understand how better to utilize our time, and what Milahy calls “psychic energy”.
By incorporating moments of flow into our daily lives, we encourage concentration on the task at hand. We come into the present moment. Mihaly and his cohort of psychologists assessed studied and surveyed individuals from all walks of life to try to better understand the flow state. Those who have experienced flow describe that for as long as the flow state lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life. Your focus and attention are exclusively focused on the present — leaving little cognitive room to worry about anything else.
In other words, flow brings order to consciousness.
The conditions of flow
In his seminal book on “flow”, Mihaly writes that there are some people who naturally have what is known as an autotelic personality. Those with an autotelic personality tend to engage in an activity for its own sake. Autos, meaning “self,” and telos, “goal” (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017). Autotelic’s feel most fulfilled and motivated in high-skill, high-challenge situations and are least motivated in low-skill, low-challenge situations. People with such personalities may be better at inducing flow in their daily lives and bringing order to everyday consciousness.
The rest of society can aspire to develop an autotelic personality. One way is to educate ourselves on and induce the conditions of a flow state. How do we go about doing this?
1. A challenging activity that requires skills
We may assume that something like watching a soap opera can induce a flow state. After all, we lose our sense of selves as we engage in the lives of our favorite TV characters. We may not even realize how much time has passed.
But in reality, unless we are active movie or soap opera critics, or fervent admirers of the art of movies, most of us passively watch TV as an escape from everyday life. This is not a flow state.
Sometimes we may even spontaneously enjoy a feeling of ecstasy — for instance when we view something beautiful. But by far the overwhelming proportion of optimal experiences are reported to occur with a sequence of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules. These are activities that require an investment of psychic energy and that cannot be done without the right skills.
Obvious examples include playing a sport and increasingly becoming better at it. A non-physical example is reading.
The skills-challenge match is the key to achieving a flow state. For someone who is pursuing a task that is too easy for them, the task may appear to be meaningless. The individual is not intrinsically motivated to achieve the task. This is the reality of many corporate workers around the world: because we have not succeeded in identifying individual strengths, skills and abilities both at school and later in the workplace, we have failed to correctly align people’s skills with the jobs that they do. Meanwhile, if the task at hand is too challenging, one may give up on it or struggle to do it, also bypassing the flow state.
2. Goals and Feedback
In order to achieve a flow state, the goals have to be clear and feedback has to be regular.
This induces a sense of accomplishment. Consider, for instance, a rock climber. For a professional rock climber, the goal is clear: he or she needs to avoid falling, as falling could lead to their death. The feedback for rock climbers is that with each successful step forward, they have avoided their own death.
But of course, goals are not always clear as they are for sports players or for rock climbers. Goals can sometimes be ambiguous and vague. For me, one way to relate to this is to explore my flow state, which is writing. When I begin writing, I may set a goal such as wanting to publish an article on flow. But the feedback is not immediate. As I write it, I’m unsure how good my words are. Yet, I pursue the activity and am able to enter flow. I may not know at the beginning what the article will look like, but after a certain period of putting pen to paper, I would have known whether or not I am starting to achieve what I initially set out to achieve.
Feedback is important because of the message that comes with it: which is that “i” have succeeded at achieving goal X.
2. Concentration on the task at hand
When one is in flow, one is completely involved in the task at hand. One way of identifying a flow state is to recognize the feeling of a loss of sense of time and place.
In flow, it’s almost as though the rest of the world does not exist outside of the doer and the task. Mihaly writes that it is the merging of action and awareness. One of the most universally described experiences of flow is that people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions that they are performing. Flow induces a sense of seemingly effortless movement. Though it may appear effortless, in reality, it requires an immense amount of concentration. Any lapse in psychic energy, concentration, or skilled performance, will snap us out of the flow state, allowing the mind to once again wander and enter a state of entropy (orderlessness).
Flow and Meaning of Life
We all ask ourselves, at some point in time, what the meaning of life is.
The science behind flow tells us that the meaning of life is meaning itself. The meaning of life is the pursuit of purpose.
In many ways, it really is a pity that we haven’t designed society to allow more individuals to pursue their sense of purpose. There’s a clear problem in society: one where the skills of individuals are mismatched with potential challenges. It may seem like the conditions of capitalism do not allow us to pursue flow at the individual level. But in reality, seeking purpose through flow states, and achieving peak performance, can have a dramatic impact on both human productivity and our collective contribution towards society.
What we need is for more top-tier organizations to understand the science behind flow states, and set the conditions for workers around the world to hack their flow.