Flow test! Ready, set, go!

So I feel like I could use a little more play in my life. But where to begin?

One of the best parts of play is how it puts you completely in the present moment. When you’re having fun, it’s hard to think about anything else–and why would you want to?

There’s a word for this focused feeling: it’s called “flow.”

Flow is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to described the feeling we get when we are fully present, completely focused and immersed in an activity for its own sake, much like kids are when they’re playing. People are at their happiest when they’re in a state of flow.

In his work, Csikszentmihalyi uses the concept of flow to understand how we find happiness, fulfillment and meaning in life. Flow is not the end-all, be-all of playfulness. Really, it’s only indirectly related to playfulness (play is one of many ways people can achieve flow). But I figure, as a gauge of how engaged I am in my life, it’s a pretty good place to start. So a couple of weeks ago, I set myself up to take a “flow test.”

In his original studies, which were subsequently repeated on hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, Csikszentmihaly gave subjects an electronic pager that went off at random intervals throughout the day (about eight times a day, for a week). At the prompt of the pager, people were supposed to write down how they felt and what they were thinking about.

After briefly considering the fun of roping a friend into texting me eight times a day, at random intervals, I decided that it actually made much more sense for me to set my own calendar reminders on my iPhone. So that’s what I did: I closed my eyes and spun the numbers on my clock like a roulette wheel to try to get some approximation of randomness. It’s a little hard to be random on purpose, but for my completely unscientific self-experiment, it worked well enough.

At the end of a week I had a snap shot of My Life Right Now. Csikszentmihalyi calls these descriptions “a written film clip of… life, made up of selections from its representative moments.” To me, they read kind of like a collection of (none too exciting) Facebook posts. (Sample entry: Day 1, 11:18 am: At the coffee shop, alone, reading research and taking notes for my book blog. Hey, I’ve got an idea! I think I’ll take this flow test! Actually, what I’m doing right now feels like flow. Nice. Okay, they weren’t all this well written. And all but this one were decidedly less meta. Most were illegibly scratched in the pages at the back of a notebook I keep in my purse.)

What did I discover after my week of testing? Apparently, I spend a lot of time driving kids to and from various activities, waiting around to pick kids up from various activities, being online or texting/e-mailing friends (who I see all the time in person, but we’re all too busy running around with our kids to actually connect in person) and just generally stressing out and not living in the moment. That’s the bad news.

The good news is, I did have some really great moments–going to a series of concerts and hanging out (in person!) with my friends, spending time with my kids in nature, immersing myself in my work… and even (go figure) shopping at the grocery store (just something about that particular shopping trip–having only one child (my oldest) in tow and having a fun conversation with her as we zipped around Whole Foods ticking off items on our list, running into a good friend while we were shopping–made it particularly pleasant). I’m not sure that anything in my week, at least during the random moments I recorded, would qualify as earth-shatteringly optimal, but apparently, some of my activities did make the cut as “optimal experiences” as Csikszentmihalyi would define them. (In his best-known book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi begins by defining flow simply as “order in consciousness”: “when psychic energy–or attention–is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action.” So I suppose I can see how grocery shopping could make the “flow” list in my life.)

But here’s what I’m struggling with… these were optimal experience, I guess, but are they all really play? Sure hanging out with my friends and splashing around in a pond with my kids have to be classified as play. But immersing myself in a project at work? Going to the grocery store? Really, is my adult life so un-fun that grocery shopping is what passes for play these days?

Part of me wants to say, that’s great… I’m bringing a sense of playfulness and enjoyment to everyday activities, an order to my consciousness. But then another part of me really, really, reeeeaaaally wants to get more out of this play experience. Beyond finding happiness in my everyday adult life and responsibilities, I still have a huge desire to play the ‘traditional’ way. Sometimes I want to (need to?) jump in a mud puddle, climb a tree or challenge my co-workers to an impromptu game of tag (I don’t know; I just do). Is that immaturity (or craziness) on my part, or is that a fact about myself that I need to embrace and run with?

So yes, I think understanding flow is a good start to figuring out how to wring more playfulness out of life… but there’s got to be more to it that that.

(to be continued…)

© Jaime Greenberg and discovered in play, 2011

2 thoughts on “Flow test! Ready, set, go!

  1. Susan Caruso says:

    I feel as if I am reading a book by reading your blog because it is taking me off in directions that are really interesting, inspiring and challenge my thinking. I love it! It’s great to be able to follow other links to expand on the ideas in your blog so easily (although I am taking a lot of time….) So, after watching MC’s Ted talk I think i understand flow better. I feel that play is in a way practice for flow. You don’t need any skills to begin to play. Play drives creativity and then it swings around to creativity expanding the play. Creativity just pops out when you are playing like being in the “zone” or adult “flow.” I wonder if it’s absolutely necessary to be a master player to understand and experience flow as an adult?

    • I definitely have some thoughts on this, plus some words from my new buddy MC. I’ll share them with you in a future post (coming soon).

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