Bring the Joy of Mindfulness to your Day with Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model

We lost the father of 'flow' this month with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's passing.

In a world of distraction, we need his wisdom more than ever.

Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, dubbed the Father of 'Flow', recently passed away at age 87. (September 29, 1934 - October 20, 2021.)

I was so blessed to spend time in his presence at the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Sydney, Australia, in May of 2014. (Link here for details of the upcoming conference in March 2022.)

His keynote address was amazing. But it was attending his small group session later where he made such an impactful, profound impression on me.

I was spellbound, basking in the quiet wisdom he exuded as he shared story after story of witnessing people that he'd connected with all over the world in 'flow'.

But come back a couple of steps with me for a moment as I provide you with some context about why I was even at the conference in the first place.

I first heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the concept of 'flow' twenty years ago at a company-sponsored personal development training program I attended.

The training program was a 5-day, live-in class. We were challenged and enlightened on a number of fronts and it was really the first time I experienced an environment for significant, accelerated  personal development and growth.

It was 2001, and I was 29 years old. 

A number of my peers had been promoted to their first manager role, while I was still aspiring to my first step up. Further, many of my peers and friends were settling down, getting married, starting their families. (While I remained single and seemingly footloose and fancy-free.)

It was a strange time for me as I was starting to wonder if I was getting left behind in life.

I found the classes and the concepts I learned to be transformative for me.

Afterwards, I couldn't wait to get my hands on one of the follow-up reference books, Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Csikszentmihalyi's research explored what it is that makes life meaningful. What makes some people feel happy and others less so?

As part of his research, Csikszentmihalyi studied the experiences of artists, musicians, composers, and other creative types who seemed to experience a level of happiness in their work that seemed to be missing for many others.

Overwhelmingly, those he interviewed described feelings of joy, even ecstasy that came over them when engaged in their creative pursuits. These feelings were also described as being completely absorbed in an activity and of time passing without noticing. He called the state being in 'flow'.

Happy, or ecstatic, experiences usually conjure up thoughts of vacation, special occasions, or something out of the ordinary to our usual day to day activities.

Csikszentmihalyi set out to develop a model for 'flow' so that ordinary people could find this kind of joy and happiness, this 'flow' in their day to day activities.

One of the key concepts his research led to was the relationship between challenge and skill level. In the doing of any activity, we each have a degree of challenge and a degree of skill that we can bring to that activity. The relationship between the two will place us into a state of feeling, that if the conditions are just right, will be 'flow', and if the conditions are not right, something less positive. Possibly relaxation, apathy, or anxiety.

There are nine states described in the Flow model, 4 are depicted in the image below.

The website  positivepsychology.com published a great article earlier this year describing the 8 ways to create flow according to Csikszentmihalyi's model. Link to the article here for a deeper dive into his material.

The book and its concepts had been so life-changing for me, that when I heard Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would be delivering a key note address at the 2014 Happiness and Its Causes conference, I knew I had to attend!

One of my favourite stories Csikszentmihalyi shared that time in Sydney was of a Japanese sushi chef in New York City who was frequently in a state of flow and joy when making sushi, or as Csikszentmihalyi said, "cutting up fish".

I loved this story so much, because it reminded me of my own early days of trying to find the 'flow' state in my every day activities.

One activity that I have found myself enjoying as a habit and a mindfulness ritual is purposely shifting into a 'flow' state while cutting up vegetables as I prepare meals.

While you might not think there is a lot of challenge in cutting up vegetables, one does need to keep their wits about them when using sharp knives! And I have made this a practice over the years that has somehow become automatic.

The funny thing is that I do gain great joy cutting up vegetables!

Interestingly, I also gain a sense of peace when I am cutting up vegetables.

The feeling of peace comes from the mindfulness that accompanies the total absorption in the activity. With a bonus side-affect of that special ingredient 'love' being added to my home cooked meals.

In looking back now, I see that learning about 'flow' states was really just the beginning of the personal journey I have been on for some time now in bringing 'mindfulness' to my every day tasks.

It's the practice and mindset of being mindful, of being present in those everyday tasks that has helped deliver the joy of the 'flow' state to my day to day activities.

What brings the joy of 'flow' for you?

Supporting you on your leadership journey,

Magenta Roads, Principal, Carla Santamaria

PS. Please share if you found this helpful.


Flow, Managing Self, Managing Self For Impactful Leadership, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Mindfulness

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