Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘chick-SENT-me-high) is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University in California. He has researched and written extensively on factors that contribute to what makes a life worth living. The 18 minute TED talk below summarises his over 40 years of research into where in everyday life, in our normal experiences, do we feel really happy.

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He points out that in the United States while 30% of people surveyed described their life as very happy, over 40 years since 1956 this proportion has hardly changed. This is in spite of the fact that in the same period of time real income has almost tripled. (For more on this see the post How Much Money Do You Actually Need?)

His research began with interviewing creative people like artists and scientists, trying to understand what made them feel it was worth spending a large part of their life doing things for which many of them did not expect either fame or fortune, but in some way made their life meaningful and worth doing. Here is how a leading American composer described how he feels when the composing is going well:

“You are in an ecstatic point to such an extent that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And (the music) just flows out of itself.

Did you notice the word ‘ecstatic’ at the beginning of the description? According to Csikszentmihalyi the word ‘ecstasy’ in Greek means simply to stand to the side of something. In other words it becomes an analogy for a mental state where you feel you are not doing your everyday ordinary routines. This means that ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality. It is almost a mystical experience. It appears to be subtly different to joy which seems to not be dependent on any actual intrinsic activity (see Why Is Joy More Important Than Happiness?)

People can look for these experiences of alternative reality in temples, sports stadiums, cinemas, shopping malls, education centres. However, what is particularly interesting about the experience of the composer is that just with a sheet of paper he can write down some little marks, and as he does that, he can imagine sounds that have not existed before in that particular combination. He is creating a new reality and as he does that he enters a moment of ecstasy that is a different reality. This is such an intense experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist.

How often do people experience flow? That depends on whether we are willing to count even mild approximations of the ideal condition as instances of flow. When Csikszentmihalyi’s research team asked a sample of typical Americans, “Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter and you lose track of time?” roughly 20% will say yes this happens to them often, several times a day; whereas 15% will say no this never happens to them.

Flow is generally reported when a person is doing his or her favourite activity. That could include simple things such as gardening, listening to music, bowling or cooking a meal. It also occurs when driving, when talking to friends and what is surprising, when at work doing challenging and stimulating activities. However, very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities such as watching television or relaxing.

We will continue to explore this concept further, but for now what are your reflections on flow and times you feel ‘in the flow’? It can be an important key to your overall level of happiness.