On January 25, 1987, the New York Giants met the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. In the biggest game of his life, Phil Simms – the Giant’s quarterback – completed 22 of 25 passes with 2 of his 3 incompletions being dropped by his receivers. With Simms “in the zone,” the Giants spanked the Broncos 39 to 20.
There may not be a better example in sports for what Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California – calls “Flow.” Csikszentmihalyi says, “Flow is the experience people have when they are completely immersed in an activity for its own sake, stretching body and mind to the limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” He contends that the more we experience flow in our lives, the happier we are.
How can flow impact mere mortals not suiting up for the Super Bowl? In his best selling book “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life,” Csikszentmihalyi tells the story of a woman with severe schizophrenia, who had been hospitalized for 10 years in the Netherlands without improvement.
The woman’s medical team arranged for her to participate in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow-monitoring program. A timer went off throughout the day, signaling her to complete a mini-survey on her emotions, thoughts and level of engagement.
The study showed that her only positive moods occurred while she was manicuring her fingernails. So, the medical team arranged for her to be trained as a manicurist.
She began offering manicures to other patients and soon was well enough to be discharged. A year later she was leading a self-sufficient life as a manicurist.
The concept of flow originated with Martin Seligman – author of the book “Authentic Happiness,” which introduced the domain of positive psychology to the world. Csikszentmihalyi was a member of the team that worked with Seligman in defining the scientific study of what drives happiness and satisfaction in one’s life.
Csikszentmihalyi portrays flow as a “channel” representing an optimal balance between one’s perceived abilities and the perceived challenge of the task at hand – be it a sport, hobby or household chore. When this optimal balance is present, there is neither boredom – in the form of too much skill for the challenge – nor anxiety – too much challenge for the skill. This balance enables a person to be fully engaged in an experience for its own sake or in other words – “in the zone.”
The characteristics of flow include clear goals, decisiveness, the merging of action and awareness, complete – yet effortless – concentration, loss of self-consciousness, an altered sense of time, immediate feedback and an experience where one is focused solely on the activity itself, not on how it might affect one’s ego or what someone else might think about it. The importance of finding flow in one’s life rests in recent research studies demonstrating that life satisfaction and happiness correlates with better health and improved longevity.
Researchers contend that happy people are more likely to engage in healthy behavior and get sick less. Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive research shows that increasing flow experiences in our life results in increased satisfaction, better quality of life, more positive emotions and higher self-esteem.
“Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life” is available at amazon.com for as little as $5.95 and Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness” can be purchased on Amazon for only $4.64. Seems like a pittance to pay for a Phil Simms-like Super Bowl experience.
Cord Prettyman is a certified Master Personal Trainer and owner of Absolute Workout Fitness and Post-Re-hab Studio in Woodland Park. He can be reached at 687-7437 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.