I experienced a very interesting (but stark) contrast yesterday. In the evening I played dodgeball with my son and his friends – it was a wonderful game which challenged me since there were older kids as well and the level of the game was just right for me. Soon after we attended a dinner party – which unfortunately paled in comparison. When we came back home, my son and I were sharing our experiences of the day and my son duly concluded, “Mummy that means you have more fun with children rather than adults”. As I went to bed I was wondering if I was hanging around with the ‘wrong’ age-group of people.
I had some ‘telling’ dreams while sleeping and I woke up now with the realization that my contrasting experiences was not so much about age-group preferences. Rather, it was due to the structure of different types of activities and my own experience of ‘flow’ in each of them. In fact what I experienced was not unusual at all when viewed from the psychological framework of flow (the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity). Dinner party conversations are not easy places to experience flow unless we consciously structure the conversations to increase the changes of having deep and meaningful conversations and/or interactions. Sports on the other hand (especially when the level of skill and level of challenge are matched) is an extremely conducive setup to experience flow because of the inherent structure of the activity.
I have been reading, researching, and teaching on the topic of flow for over ten years now. Even more specifically, I have included a book chapter titled, ‘The Risks and Opportunities of Leisure’ in the course binder for a course I teach. The chapter is from a book ‘Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the totally awesome dude who coined the term flow and who also writes like a magician!). Yet, even after years of being steeped in the research on flow, it took me an ‘explanatory dream’ to understand the nuances of my own contrasting experiences today.
In the book (rather in this particular chapter) Csikszentmihalyi makes a brilliant case of differentiating between active and passive leisure. He creates these categories based on empirical data of actual people’s experiences (several thousands of them actually), and also backs it up with compelling logic related to the theory of flow. The central premise is that ‘leisure’ is not something automatically ‘enjoyable’ and that some forms of leisure are more conducive to experiencing flow (and therefore the state of deep and total enjoyment) than others.
The most useful takeaway for me however is that once we understand this science of flow, we can choose to engage in activities that we find more conducive to flow (if of course that is something we want to). Moreover, we can also take steps to ‘consciously’ increase our chances of experiencing flow even during activities that by themselves are not set up for it (like dinner parties), by focussing on trying to have deep and meaningful conversations rather than disjoint and scattered bits of information exchange that might leave us listless (with an underlying dissatisfaction of half hearted engagement).
Here are some quick nuggets / quotes from the book on how ‘social interactions’ can also be avenues to experience flow – “When we have to interact with another person, even stranger, our attention becomes structured by external demands. In more intimate encounters, the level of both challenges and skills can grow very high. Thus, social interactions have many of the characteristics of flow activities, and they certainly require the orderly investment of mental energy. ………………A successful interaction involves finding some compatibility between our goals and those of the other person or persons, and becoming willing to invest attention in the other person’s goals. When these conditions are met, it is possible to experience the flow that comes from optimal interaction…………………….A good conversation is like a jam session in jazz, where one starts with conventional elements and then introduces spontaneous variations that create an exciting new composition”.
Here is a link to a short summary of the book. I would love to write my own summary note on flow someday – till I do that just get Csikszentmihalyi’s original books and read them ;-). Incidentally, reading his books itself (he has multiple books on flow) takes me into the state of flow – but then I’m a nerd :-)! https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199707/finding-flow