I was in flow when I got the idea for this story. Now I’m not. Don’t get me wrong. I feel fine. Generally positive, I’m a perfectly contented baby boomer approaching his 65th birthday, in excellent health, treasuring a 25-year marriage, savoring the final phase of a fulfilling 35-year corporate communications career and anticipating a rewarding retirement with endless possibilities.
Sounds great, right? It is. But it’s not the same as being in flow.
What I’m talking about is a state whose essential element is inspiration. The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described inspiration as a “revolutionary, countercultural and spiritual phenomenon,” moments that “feel transcendent, uncontrollable and irresistible.”
That’s part of what I’m looking for.
It also has something to do with being immersed in subjects and activities that hold intrinsic fascination, making them seem driven by an inner purpose. Pursuing these endeavors seems almost effortless. The mind is fully focused, totally absorbed, and despite the intensity, free of stress. Energy seems to be generated rather than depleted.
The Secret to Happiness
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi (pronounced ME-high-Cheek-SENT-me-high) is credited with coining the term “flow,” and in a TED talk he calls it “the secret to happiness.”
Csikszenthmihalyi has been studying flow for more than 40 years. He’s interviewed numerous creative people in the worlds of music, art, mathematics and science, sports and business. He quotes a successful American composer who described his flow experience as “an ecstatic state” in which you “feel as though you don’t exist.” The composer elaborates: “My hand seemed devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the music just flows out of itself.”
According to Csikszenthmihalyi, this is how Einstein felt as he was working through the theory of relativity. It’s how athletes feel when they’re “in the zone.”
Losing Your Self
Part of the reason for the sense of losing one’s self in the activity, Csikszenthmihalyi explains, is that the mind can only concentrate on a few things at one time. When you’re totally absorbed in doing something you love and find meaningful, the other aspects of existence – from time to temperature to hunger and thirst – simply cease to be.
Probably because of my personal interests, I find this easier to envision in the arts – music, writing, painting. But what about in the corporate world?
Creating Corporate Flow
Csikszenthmihalyi covers corporate flow in a book called “Good Business,” in which he cites Sony founder Musaru Ibuka as starting his company not with a product, but with an idea intended to create an environment of flow for his workers. That idea was “To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their hearts’ content.”
The healthcare company I work for pursues a similar purpose-driven ideal, based on our mission of helping patients by enhancing, extending and sometimes even saving their lives. I can confirm that this goes a long way toward making our work feel important and socially responsible. And although I have found myself in flow at work during the course of my three-decade career, the realities of corporate life often mitigate against it.
That’s a topic for another story, but suffice it to say, the routines, the pressures to conform rather than break new ground and the inescapable necessity to do some things you don’t like along with the stuff you love tend to put up barbed-wire fences on the path to flow.
Finding Steady Flow in Retirement
I’m hoping retirement provides the remedy. As I’ve pondered what I really want when my corporate career comes to an end, my reflections have ranged from a life of nonstop leisure to a dynamic encore career in communications consulting, to something in between. But lately, I’ve discovered that what I really want is to be in an extended state of flow.
To me this means having the freedom to spend my time exclusively working on things that interest and inspire me, being able to follow my own biorhythms without regard to the day of week or time of day. It also means feeling an enveloping sense of security and well-being that includes a sound economic foundation, a fulfilling relationship, and idyllic surroundings.
When these conditions are in place, one additional phenomenon sometimes occurs that unlocks the vault within which resides the transcendent state I have come to know as flow. That’s when a question I’m thinking about, or a subject I’m seeking insights into, or a knowledge source I’m searching for suddenly appears, much in the manner often described in books and seminars on the power of positive thinking. I’ve always harbored a healthy skepticism about such seemingly “too-good-to-be-true” tenets of the self-help set. But I’ve caught a clear enough glimpse of it to at least partially suspend my disbelief.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung might have called what I’m talking about synchronicity, simply defined as meaningful coincidence. For example, just as I was starting to think about this piece, my boss asked me to help him with a presentation on how well-being can contribute to peak performance. With my mind already immersed in this subject, I offered some ideas that led us to devise a formula comprised of three elements: Finding your purpose, in a career or life’s work that provide meaning and personal satisfaction; finding your place, in terms of the geographical setting, home environment and a life partner that make you feel whole and at peace; and finally, finding your balance, by working out your own formula for the combination of work, relaxation, stress, planning and spontaneity that are right for you.
And another example: Just as I was working on the part of this story where I was trying to explain the intoxicating, almost addictive quality of the way flow feels for me, I happened upon this article about one of my lifelong musical idols and influences, Paul Simon, who refuses to retire at the advanced age of 74 and keeps on creating, with a much-anticipated new album scheduled for release in June.
In speaking about the brain chemistry involved in “the pleasure that exists in music,” Simon expressed exactly what I feel when all the components of flow are kicking in. “If you give it a little while longer,” Simon said of having the patience to go beyond today’s short-form pop playlists, you might get to a deeper level of pleasure. “They just keep giving you shots of adrenaline, not serotonin,” he said.
Simon goes on to explain that “Serotonin is the drug that puts you in the situation where you feel safe and comfortable. The drug that gives you the awe is the dopamine. And the adrenaline is the thing that keeps you going.”
When the three arrive together it’s incredible, Simon said. “It’s an addiction, and that’s why artists keep doing it.”
A Feeling That Can’t Be Forced
And suddenly I’m feeling on my way back to flow again. I just have to be careful not to try too hard. As one of Csikszenthmihalyi’s flow subjects cautioned, reaching this state requires a delicate approach. “It’s like opening a door that is flowing in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and let yourself sink into it,” he said. “You can’t force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.”
So it seems you have to go with the flow to get in flow.
I’m hoping that what I’ve learned in more than six decades of life, combined with the foundation of financial and emotional security I’ve built as a base, and the increased freedom that retirement will bring, may make it possible for me to find flow more frequently and stay in it longer once I’m there.