Living In Flow

We have all had the experience of having a conversation with someone who suddenly glances at their phone and becomes focused, for a minute second, on the incoming text message. There is a stop in the flow of the energy as the person reestablishes his focus back on the conversation you and he had started. The conversation may continue but not without first a moment of hesitation in the flow as the conversation has been taken off track for that second. Or we may be on the other end of that where we have been the interrupter of the moment, losing focus on what we are doing when our phone tells us something new has arrived. There is a sense of feeling as if the conversation or the moment somehow got lost in the multi-tasking interruption. It may even feel as if it never were regained but somehow dissipated into the big black hole of technology/multi-tasking/distraction. And we leave the moment feeling a sense of being unsatisfied.

As a therapist, I am very aware that being “present” with the client, listening and sitting with the client, is very healing in itself. The interruptions are put aside and the message is clear that it will be 50 minutes of connecting and being focused on what is present in the moment. There is an uninterrupted flow which allows for deep connecting. These moments of total focus may be more of a gift now than ever before as we learn to navigate our way through new technologies. We will also need to figure out how to handle the opportunities for more connecting and how we want them to be a part of our lives.

With our present state of ever increasing multi-tasking, gadgets and communication at our finger tips, we might think we should be feeling more connected. And one might further assume that it is with these connections that we find some happiness as our human instinct is to connect with others. But when we are multi-tasking and not attending to just one task, whether it is a conversation with someone or reading the paper, we may not really be deriving pleasure from any of our moments, as we give ourselves a taste of this and a taste of that. But we don’t take the opportunity to savor the taste.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Chicago psychologist, researched this very issue. His findings were published in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990. Csikszentmihalyi’s mission was to study the path to happiness and how we can attain it. He found that it was how we pursued life’s tasks that resulted in our happiness, not the outcome of the tasks. He actually studied the effects of multi-tasking as a way to pursue life’s tasks. His research results showed that when people’s attention is not preoccupied with something, their thoughts go to dark thoughts. So it may be that we work, maybe even subconsciously, to keep ourselves occupied with activity. This may be why we so quickly move into checking our email while we talk on the phone, or answering texts in the midst of another task. (Servan-Schreiber, 2010)

But the same research also found that we only experience real pleasure or joy when our attention is entirely engaged by one thing. This one thing can be a conversation, preparing a meal, or scrubbing the floor. Maybe being fully engaged isn’t something you are familiar with, or something that you seldom do. But the definition reminds me of my husband’s passion for fishing. He states that when you fish, you only think about fishing. He is hooked because he finds it brings him great joy, is a perfect stress reliever, and keeps his life in balance. Perhaps he is on to something much deeper. It isn’t the outcome of that big fish, but rather the way he gets there, by being fully present in his moment.

Our attention, our focus, is pure energy. When we engage our focus onto something, it can transform the moment, the relationship, or the task. There is something magical about just being present in this moment, just attending to what is our task right now. We can be transformed as our ego falls away, time moves forward, and our whole being is transported to being just where we are at that moment. Csikszentmihalyi wanted to figure out how to live life as an art rather than a chaotic response to external stimuli. This is what he discovered.

Being in flow has some specific qualities, according to Csikszentmihalyi. It is being completely involved, focused, concentrating – with either innate curiosity or as the result of training. It leaves no room for other troubling thoughts. It has a sense of ecstasy, being outside everyday reality. It gives greater inner clarity, knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going. Being in flow offers an inner knowing that the activity is possible, the skills are there and we are neither anxious nor bored, but rather completely involved. It carries a sense of security, no worries about self. It has a timeliness that allows us to be so focused on the present we don’t notice time passing. Seconds may seem like hours. Hours may seem like seconds. And there is an intrinsic motivation that whatever produces “flow” becomes its own reward. It brings the feeling that you were a part of something greater, allowing you to forget the self as a separate entity. (Dietz, 2010)

So it may be challenging, and skills may need to be developed and practiced, but it may be healthy and rewarding to become aware of your pattern of “being present”. Watch yourself and take note. Then set out on the endeavor to live life as presently as possible. Cut down on the multi-tasking and give yourself a break. Maybe shut your phone off for an hour or make yourself wait to look at the text message that you heard come in. Allow yourself the luxury of sinking into your moments and being fully present. It is here where we find connection with the world and can become satisfied with life.


Works Cited
Csikszentmibaly, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dietz, C. (2010, January). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from Thinking and Learning.
Servan-Schreiber, D. (2010). Your Attention Please. Ode , 59.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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