We are in the midst of a crisis of meaning, inundated with cultural images and pressures signaling status and prestige, dictating what is deemed socially acceptable. The cancel culture, the culture wars, and the fear of being excluded have us expending a tremendous amount of attention to the millions of messages to which we are exposed each day.
Our attention is our most valuable resource. Experience is dependent on attention. Moreover, our quality of life is the quality of our experience.
Who decides where we put our attention?
Ultimately, we do. Yet left unchecked, the media we leave ourselves open to will steal our attention without permission. Advertisers, television writers, and political commentators are masters at stoking the most primal aspects of our consciousness, instinctually drawing our attention.
And so the ability to control our impulses and attention has a direct correlation with how we experience life. Focus, a necessary element of attention, is becoming exponentially more difficult and rare. Researchers, doctors, and scientists admit our minds have not evolved to the point where we can effectively process the volume of information we are exposed to daily.
In the final accounting, will our life’s experience be a race for a larger social media following, dependent on followership, materialism, political correctness, and/or the judgment of others? Or will it be a carefully cultivated menagerie of passions, projects, works, connection, depth, and community?
In the end, where we place our attention will lead to the answers to these questions.
Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, the father of Flow psychology, set out to better understand what constitutes a meaningful life. On this journey, he discovered Flow. When fully absorbed in an intellectual, physical, artistic, or spiritual activity we may forget ourselves, experiencing loss of the ‘self’. After this experience, we reemerge feeling even more ‘ourselves’.1 The experience of Flow causes us to become the architects, not simply the beneficiary of life’s meaning.
Loving Your Craft
Those who are masters of their craft describe a deep and rich experience with it’s related activity.
LeBron James: “When I was 4, 5 years old, I started playing on a crate. We cut the bottom out, nailed it to the light pole, me and my friends. No backboard, so every shot had to go straight in, or you didn’t make it. And I remember that joy — playing on the street, cars interrupting our game, the ball going into the woods. Playing basketball, it did something to me,”.2
All the elements of the flow cycle are here, the struggle of not having a hoop, the skill/challenge ratio of having to put up the perfect shot in order to score, and the “joy” he describes – the autotelic experience. This became a lifelong passion for one of professional basketball’s all-time best players.
Dylan Thomas: “I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever.”3
Celebrated poet, Dylan Thomas, describes his love of words. He describes a feeling of ultimate control, believing he can influence their meaning – the experience of increased control often associated with Flow.
There is no doubt that many of the greats who we admire achieved their greatness with access to flow.Yet, flow is not reserved for only those few, great individuals. Csikszentmihalyi famously reported the anecdotes of many he interviewed in his search for meaning. Joe the Welder, for example, passed on a promotion to foreman. He so enjoyed his craft as a welder, unlike the other welders who openly disliked their jobs. Joe loved his craft and so was able to achieve flow “…in the most barren environment, and hence live a fulfilling life, despite his relatively low salary and social status.”8
In a 2010 study of classical pianists, those who ‘flowed’ displayed deepened breathing, slowed heart rates, and the activation of the muscles used to smile4. These physical characteristics are all associated with increased well-being and contentment.
Flow is achieved in many activities such as skiing, fishing, playing the guitar, cooking, reading, conversation or eating.
Csikszentmihályi sums up the love of craft and meaning: “…the most sustaining meaning comes from what you yourself contribute to the world — by the love you give, the strength you provide, the beauty you create.”5
Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, survived the Nazi concentration camps. His pregnant wife, parents, and brother murdered, he went on to write the incredibly influential book Man’s Search For Meaning.6 In the book, he notes we create meaning in the following ways:
- Creating a work or doing a deed – our craft
- Experiencing something or encountering someone – our experience and connections
- The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering – the story we tell ourselves.
Tony Robbins, American author, and coach reflects, “The ability to find meaning in the most difficult times, even in times of injustice or extreme stress is perhaps the most important skill we can develop in life.”7 This is certainly true in Frankl’s case and is also true for many of us.
In the consideration of what is meaningful, we might look at the top regrets of the dying9.
- To have had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- To have not worked so hard
- To have had the courage to express feelings
- To have stayed in touch with friends
- To have let myself be happier
Some principles can be derived from this list (though sound all too familiar and cliched) .
- Live true to what is important to you, no matter what those around you may think
- Don’t live to work, work to live
- You’re responsible for your feelings, not those around you. However, it’s important you share your feelings with them. Otherwise, you short yourself and them.
- The core group of folks that are on your mind all the time – call, write, zoom them – the time you spend connected is irreplaceable
- Let yourself be happy with who you are, flaws and all – revel in your uniqueness
There was a time in my life when having the thought ‘…a good life is one spent doing the things I enjoy doing -running, writing, yoga’ –was novel. ‘Some people actually live to run‘, I thought. ‘Someday far off, I’ll get there‘. I just had to tolerate, to survive the things to be done between runs.
But then I thought, what if the meaning found in my favorite activities could be preserved, replicated, and spread to work, personal, and relational activities? If this is possible, it would have a profound impact on my life. The study of flow has enabled me to begin this transposing of meaning and passion to other arenas of life.
Flow and Meaning
We find flow and meaning in activities in which we deeply connect. The two are inseparable. Religion, philosophy, art, literature, and science have attempted to discover the ultimate source of meaning. The commonality in these different explanatory mechanisms is that the individual is contributing and/or is connected to something larger than his/herself.
The following seven characteristics all appear to facilitate meaning: authenticity, self-efficacy, self‐esteem, purpose, belongingness, transcendence, and cultural and interpersonal sensemaking.10 Being authentic allows us to fully express our desires and interests circumventing the fear of judgment. Self-efficacy allows us to feel autonomy (a flow trigger) and builds our self-esteem, the confidence that is exacerbated by the state. Purpose aligns with clear goals. Transcendence is the process of change as a result of an experience with deep meaning. And the sensemaking comes from learning and ‘putting in order’ through the experience of flow.
Is it too far to further define flow as a mechanism by which we directly create meaning?
As one who felt depersonalized, disconnected from life for much of it, developing meaning was vital. All the events and relationships in my life felt empty and without meaning. Flow has helped me engage with my life, to cut out the parts not serving me. To focus. When people claim that they are “on the right path”, I believe they are referencing a series of flow states. They are attempting to communicate their experience of meaning creation at a meta-level. They are deeply diving into what matters to them, using the meaning-making device of flow.