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Challenge of Flow (& the Magic of 4%)

Posted by Anna | Oct 03, 2020

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As a 9 year-old boy in the Italian prison camps of World War Two, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly learned to play chess.


He gathered his focus into the pieces and patterns on the board.

And he realised that (for hours at a time!) all the fears and hardships of prison life could disappear.

Even as a kid, Mihaly felt the importance of this experience.

Playing chess helped him survive the camps, and the trauma of losing two brothers.

But not everyone was that resilient:

“I realised how few of the grown-ups I knew were able to withstand the tragedies the war had visited on them."

Mihaly wasn't yet ten, but the question that arose in his mind would define the rest of his life. His question was this:

What contributes to “a life worth living” even after jobs, home and security have been destroyed?

As a teenager, on a mission for answers, Mihály explored philosophy, religion and art. 

But it was only when the 16-year-old stumbled into a lecture by Carl Jung one afternoon in Switzerland (having no money for the cinema!) that he began to understand: The answers to his big questions might be found in positive psychology.

Fast forward decades.


And now Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is a professor in America.

His research tracks thousands of humans, round the globe, on a mission to discover what makes people truly happy.

Were you a subject in Csikszentmihaly’s research, an alarm would go off in your pocket, perhaps mid-conversation at work, or while you’re gardening at home. And you’d be asked to rate your happiness, record the activity you’re doing at that moment, and answer a short questionnaire on your experience.

Thousands of experiments later, the results are conclusive.

And those conclusions brought Mihaly back full circle, to that early experience of absorption he had at the chess board (back in the prison camps of World War Two).

His experiments show conclusively that (once basic needs are met)...

Happiness doesn’t correlate with wealth or fame.

And only on the rarest occasion does a subject report high levels of joy when they're in a passive state - for example, while awestruck, looking at a beautiful view.

Instead, overwhelmingly (no matter what their wealth, job or background), when a subject reports happiness, it's when they're fully engaged in an active, meaningful task that stretches their skill.

Meditation. Yoga. Woodwork. Sports. Creativity. Even a deep conversation.

And the word these subjects used, to describe their happy feeling (the term that came up, again and again, in interviews) was flow.

Here's a graph to show how skill's involved:

  • Challenge is high
  • Skills are high
  • Challenge isn't so beyond your skill that you start to feel "over-stimulated" or "anxious"
  • Challenge isn't so within your skill that you feel "totally in control" or "relaxed"
  • Flow's right between the two (a slight challenge, stretching skill, that puts you "in the zone" of optimal performance & peak joy)

So, how much do we need to challenge ourselves, and stretch our skills, in order to achieve this magical feeling?

It isn’t much.

Estimates vary, but "the general thinking is about 4%. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4% greater than [your current] skills,” according to Steven Kotler, flow researcher.

And Csikszentmihaly says, some activities are just made for flow:

“It makes sense to think of yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both [flow and yoga] try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration.”

In the 1940s, Mihaly endured prison through chess. And here we are, in the 2020s, enduring lockdown through yoga. Makes sense! 😊

That's the magic of practice. It’s a way to thrive, no matter what.


But it’s also worth remembering another of Mihaly’s insights:

That flow is for everyone!

His experiments taught him that - not just yogis, athletes and artists, but - welders, farmers, factory workers, and full-time parents could all find flow, so long as they had minds that were geared towards looking for it.

And crucially, this is a skill that can be learned!

We can take any activity, and "make it into flow by... finding the challenge in it, and then paying attention... until [we] get involved,” said Mihaly.

From decades of research, Csikszentmihaly crafted this diagram (below) to guide us. It shows activities where many subjects stumble out of flow, and into worry (at one end) or into boredom (on the other).

With anxiety, tasks are too overwhelming for our current skills. 

And with apathy, tasks aren’t challenging enough to engage us.

But happily, we've got some power over that! 

Where there's boredom, we can add challenge.

Where there's stress, we can break down difficulty into easier tasks. And use those easier tasks to train our skill. Till finally the difficult task is no longer a struggle. (Just like with yoga progressions!)

Can you see your own patterns in Csikszentmihaly's diagram (below)?

Or do you have a totally different range of activities that knock you in and out of flow? It's worth investigating!


And if there are activities in your life that always leave you stressed, or bored, is there something to be done? 

Because, now we know this magic of tweaking challenge levels to trigger flow, that should make it easier for us to seek out a sweet spot to match our skills. Am I right? And we know this is the pathway to thriving! 😊

It's something I'm discovering more about daily, and I find it helps to journal about it!

Even right now, try asking this question, and writing down the answer:

What am I struggling with today? And is there another possible version of this where the challenge is just 4% beyond my skill?

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And I would sincerely love to hear your thoughts about finding flow states in the comments below. 💚

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