Why are some people able to bounce back from life's most testing calamities and find a renewed meaning and motivation while others just constantly complain?
Why do some always know what they want and manage to stay remarkably focused regardless of what others think or say?
Finally, why do some people boast limitless creative energy and drive while others are constantly distracted or simply bored?
I've recently met a guy who had an interesting take on the questions above. I had a chance to interview Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago and at one time a Carl Gustav Jung student. Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian by birth hence the unusual last name (pronounced “tchiksentmihali”), currently a Claremont Graduate University professor, is considered the world's leading expert in positive psychology as well as one of the most influential and cited thinkers of our time. He came to Moscow this summer for the Russian edition of his bestseller previously translated into dozens of languages – Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
It's all not that difficult, this Budapest-born professor whose family was one of the last ones to flee Hungary during the Nazi invasion, tried to convince me. The key is how we choose to interpret what happens to us and, more importantly, how our minds work throughout daily routines. According to him, the shortcut to the utmost fulfilling existence is the ability to get into the the Flow, a special mental state when anxieties and other distractions disappear so one could feel incredibly potent, creative and alive.
Csikszentmihalyi, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 22 and still travels the world extensively with lectures and seminars, invented the Flow concept after decades of case studies and extensive research. Initially, his prime focus group was the artists of sorts who, as the scientist had discovered, used to get so engaged in their creative work that they managed to lose not only the track of time but somehow the sense of self as well – a bit like children or... drug addicts.
Along with the fellow researchers across America and Europe, Csikszentmihalyi went further, studying hundreds of individuals capable of regularly experiencing the similar state which he called “effortless concentration.” These included Nobel Prize winners, Mount Everest climbers, devoted mothers, chess players, neurosurgeons, yoga and other spiritual or religious practices' aficionados, as well as the people who had survived major incidents leaving them handicapped but still more proactive than many of those who were completely healthy. All claimed the same thing: when they were busy doing something they found meaningful and stimulating, the world stopped. Nothing else mattered at those moments no matter what their life circumstances were.
Having extrapolated the data, the scientist came to realize that happiness and even bliss were within much easier reach than we thought. Where we live, how much money we have and what status we possess and other social motivators are actually secondary.
“I once asked my friend Linus Pauling, a double Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and Peace, who had gone to work every single day through the age of 90, where he got his energy,” Csikszentmihalyi said. “I had never worked in my life,” Linus told me, “as work was like play for me.”
Learning to treat one's daily activities like play or, better, like a piece of art is one of the conditions to achieve the Flow state, Csikszentmihalyi believes. “The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one's attention,” he writes in his book. “It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, warm sunshine, or the contentment of a serene relationship, but this kind of happiness is dependent on favorable external circumstances. The happiness that follows Flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.”
When I listened to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I realized that I've been in the Flow many times. Writing, skiing, cooking, having stimulating conversations are among the things that more often than not make me joyfully centered and alive. For me the trick is, in fact, my ego. When I let go of self-doubt and worry, the energy indeed starts flowing and I do, as athletes say, "get into the Zone."
I actually think most of us have experienced the state of the Flow many times. Still, these days, it might be increasingly difficult to get there. The professor launched his research half a century ago – it was a different world back then. Today, we live in an era of multiple distractions. We lose life focus overwhelmed by the Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, syndrome, a new notion meaning compulsive attempts to seek out experiences not for their own sake but not to miss out on what others might be doing. Psychologists insist that thanks to the social media, FOMO is becoming the most widespread form of social anxiety these days with more than 70% of adults suffering from it.
I asked the professor for tips on how to nevertheless stay grounded. Start simple, he said. Make a list of the things you're good at and really enjoy doing. It could be anything, from ironing to speed-walking. Try to do at least one of these activities every day, staying truly focused on the task and gradually increasing the challenge. Set the goals that you do find meaningful. Don't get stuck in the routine – make new habits. Be curious. Let yourself be surprised as often as possible. No matter what you are doing, don't be self-centered, but instead - engaged and carefree at the same time. And follow your dreams, at least some. “I've known people who've decided to learn playing the piano at the age of 60 or later,” Csikszentmihalyi said. “Don't postpone life – there's so much stuff you could be doing and getting a kick.”
Seeing the vigor in this 78-year-old professor's eyes, I believed him.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.