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When my parents took me to see the movie “Matilda” as a young kid in 1995, I never expected memories from this day to revisit me many years later in my college psychology classroom.
At the time, I certainly hadn’t tied what I did afterward to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s concept of flow. But the memories did revisit me, and now I do think of this concept.
Here’s a brief summary of the film for those of you who haven’t seen it (you’ll need it in order for the rest of this to make sense):
An introspective child feels alone in the world. She’s mentally and emotionally estranged from the superficial family members she’s forced to coexist with.
To escape her loneliness, Matilda walks the 10 blocks to her public library once a week, filling a little red wagon with countless books whose pages offer refuge from her alienating home environment. The young girl’s literary proficiency quickly becomes a source of power that aids in her psychological survival.
A voracious reader myself—frequent trips to the library with my mom often ended in me staggering out the door with a pile of books so tall I could barely see the path in front of me—I immediately identified with Mara Wilson’s character.
Not far into the narrative, Matilda becomes aware of harboring an additional power: the capacity to summon items to her from across the room (achieved through squinting intently at the desired object in question).
I, of course, thought this was amazing, as I’m sure many of the other kids in the theater did as well. The awe remained with me until the scene where the evil principal (Ms. Trunchbull) stages a public humiliation after catching one of Matilda’s classmates, Bruce Bugtrotter, eating a slice of her cake.
To punish him, Trunchbull forces Bruce to consume every last morsel of a gargantuan chocolate dessert on stage at the school auditorium, while the entire student body watches.
At this point, while many of the audience members groaned in collective sympathy for Brucie, I found myself grappling with a much different emotion: jealousy. As someone whose dad kept the household sweets out of reach from child hands, all I could think as I watched the scene was that I would have gladly devoured “the entire confection” had I been in Bruce’s position.
Why can’t my punishments be more like his? I bitterly wondered.
After coming home from the movies that day, my jealousy had yet to dissolve. It was then that an idea hit me.
What better way to satisfy my sweet cravings than to emulate the abilities of my Hollywood kindred spirit? Maybe, I thought, if I tried really hard and squinted really intently, I could reposition the desserts from their as-of-then unreachable location into my welcoming arms.
And so, I entered the kitchen with a zealous resolve to achieve my goal. Positioned about 10 feet below the cookie jar on top of the high shelf, I adjusted my eyes to mimic Matilda’s squinty look of concentration.
Minutes into the striking of this pose, the cookies hadn’t budged an inch. I was frustrated, and the arrival of my sister (who wondered, condemningly, what the heck I was doing) discouraged me even further.
I wasn’t ready to give up just yet, though. Attributing my failure to mere performance anxiety at the appearance of an unanticipated intruder, I relocated to the garage where I knew the Costco Christmas candies were stored atop a shelf. The privacy and serenity back there would surely help me achieve my goal.
Even after upping the ante though, squinting more intently than I ever imagined possible, still I had no luck. To make matters worse, I was greeted with similar judgment—this time by smaller (though, given that my sister and I were both always the shortest in our respective classes, not by much), squeaking creatures.
Defeated, I resigned myself to my room, protected from shaming sisters and judgmental mice. At that point, no longer attached to an outcome, I could fully immerse myself in an activity that had always been inherently enjoyable to me: reading.
I may not have possessed Matilda’s telekinetic powers, but at least I could partake in one of our more mundane, shared passions.
The flow experience.
This brings me to the topic of flow, formally proposed by the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Though Csikszentmihalyi introduced the formal terminology in the 1980s, the process has been around for as long as humans have been able to immerse themselves in activities that required some level of cognitive exertion and psychic investment.
Flow occurs when you’re taking part in an activity and the thought “what’s next on my to-do list?” seldom enters your mind; you’re just there in the present moment, with all of your attention channeled in one place. Csikszentmihalyi writes that while in flow, “you are utterly absorbed. Time seems to fall away. You are tired, but you barely notice.”
Some might experience flow from reading, others from skiing, and some from talking to a friend or interacting with a baby.
“Moments such as these provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life,” writes Csikszentmihalyi.
Though the word may seem to imply a pairing of idleness with aimless relaxation, on the contrary, “flow” applies to tasks wherein an individual utilizes his or her higher abilities. Having a flow-promoting activity that sparks enjoyment doesn’t exclude the fact that it also requires some mastery of a skill.
Flow involves “knowing that the task is doable, a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.”
Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes the flow experience from that of more passive entertainment by highlighting that the former “leads to growth” while the latter “leads nowhere.” That said, immersing the mind in such a way is different than letting it go on vacation (as the term might initially seem to insinuate).
Contemporary challenges to achieving flow.
It can be hard to carve out moments for flow in our modern times, as distractions are ever-present. The mind, particularly in certain kinds of jobs, is encouraged to be in many places at once or to “switch easily between tasks” (which can feel almost the same as being in many places at once).
Narcissism also gets in the way of achieving flow moments, as self-consciousness tarnishes experience. Philosopher Alan Watts writes that “To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, ‘I am listening to music,’ you are not listening.”
Conversely, when one is fully immersed in what they are doing, the “I” temporarily fades away, allowing for a truly cathartic experience.
A third and final deterrent to flow is the modern expectation for instant gratification, which continual improvements in technology may only exacerbate. As Shakar Vedantam said in the “Hidden Brain” episode, “Life Interrupted”: “Every time we respond to an email or a text, or Google a question that’s just popped into our head, we pay a small price. In the moment, this price is imperceptible, but over time, it adds up. And we haven’t quite come to terms with the cost of constant distraction.”
Why is flow important?
Just as flow experts would suggest, my finest moments at my last job (before transitioning into freelance), and the times during which I did feel most at peace, occurred when I was engaged in activities that required full attention and some level of proficiency.
For instance, while helping a client fill out a disability packet, I’d translate questions out loud into Spanish before dictating the answers onto the paper.
When a client sought to delve deep into her traumatic childhood during our one-hour appointment, I’d listen with my full attention.
After a lengthy home visit or conference call, I’d write a long and detailed case note, whittling down every need and concern that had arisen into contained sentences.
Csikszentmihalyi laments that most jobs and many leisure activities (particularly the ones “involving the passive consumption of unreliable mass media”) fail to promote flow. They are “not designed to make us happy and strong,” but rather, to profit higher powers who do not hold our best interests at heart. The psychologist warns that if we let them, they can “suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving only feeble husks.”
How, then, can we carve out more moments of optimal experience, so as to continue on this journey as dynamic, thriving, inspired, and inspiring individuals?
Shifting from outcome to process.
I call forth the image of an “elusive jungle cat” to symbolize the concept of that ever-difficult-to-finish piece of coherent writing. When I want the cats, they saunter off in cold defiance, yet when I stop paying attention to them and shift my focus to other things, they return (sometimes in inopportune places).
Author and psychiatrist, Judith Orloff, refers to this process of turning our attention away from what we most want as “surrender” (which is not to be confused with “giving up”).
Orloff describes surrender as “the antidote to stress in a world that relentlessly conspires to interrupt creative thought.” Not only does surrender increase production of your brain’s endorphins (“euphoric, opiate-like pain killers”) and serotonin (“a natural antidepressant that allows you to relax, have more fun, and succeed more wildly than ever before”), it also can serve as the “magical factor” that facilitates the achievement of your goals (however counter-intuitive this may seem) by relieving gridlock.
“Life becomes easier and more blissful when you can let go,” she writes.
Applying Orloff’s advice to my cookie quandary.
Indeed, an interesting thing happened that day back in the 90s, once I had forgone my cookie mission and settled into reading.
After about 20 minutes of immersion into the text, a transformation began to occur. From that point forward, the longer I read, the freer my mind became.
And, though I hadn’t planned for it, with my mind now out of its rut and free to meander, it eventually stumbled upon a solution to my initial conundrum:
My plastic dolphin grabber toy peered out at me from the corner of my eye. It was just long enough to reach to the top of the fridge, where the cookies were located.
I picked it up. I went down to the kitchen. I reached for the cookies.
It was with a victorious smile on my face that I brought them upstairs with me to eat while I read my books.
Previously, the hyper-focus on outcome had kept me on a one-track mind, stunting my creative thinking.
Rather than effortlessly maneuvering across the infinite realm of cognitive possibilities that a relaxed mind-space affords, I had instead remained stuck in a fixed position. Nothing in contorting my face into strange, aggrieved expressions had lent itself to flow. It had instead only led to disappointment at the frustrated goal.
Placing more value on intrinsic rewards.
I don’t mean to altogether dismiss the action of pursuing goals.
Undoubtedly, the routes adults take on the path to extrinsic achievement are more plausible and realistic than a child’s logic-defying quest for cookies via telekinesis. What I do hope to highlight though is that sometimes we plug ahead at the same task for so long, so obstinately and so unwaveringly without altering our approach, that our obsession with the outcome leads us to neglect focusing on and enjoying the process.
Psychologist Raj Raghunathan says that, ultimately, what humans need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple: “It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.” It’s difficult to get lost in something though when your eyes are fixed unyieldingly toward the finish line.
The most substantive moments in life often occur when the mind is challenged, the senses are engaged, and the process takes priority over whatever rewards might follow. When you are so immersed in what you’re doing, you forget the “I,” self-consciousness falls away, and your anxious mind is no longer keeping you stuck in a “half-there” existence.
That’s what mindfulness is about, isn’t it?
You’re not striving. You’re not trying to control or fix your circumstances. You’re just accepting what is.
The next time you find yourself pushing against a concrete wall, think of a little kid squinting at a jar of cookies, and perhaps, go and read a book—or whatever activity that for you personally both challenges and relaxes your mind.