It seems that we have been genetically programmed over the past million or so years to seek happiness. It turns out this is no accident, it is necessary for our ongoing survival as a species. The upshot of this genetic programming is that, through our endeavours to do things so we feel good, we each become more and more sophisticated (more complex) beings.
Complexity may be the answer to the age old question, “What is the meaning of life?” the answer being, “To decrease entropy—i.e. increase complexity—in the universe.” The arrow of progress and growth points in the direction increased complexity. It is not surprising, then, that we are genetically programmed to be happy when we engage in activities that lead to increased complexity.
Csikszentmihalyi (1998, pp. 74-75) describes activities that lead to happiness as flow activities. He believes there is a strong link between flow experiences and the increased complexity of consciousness:
In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: it provided a sense of self discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of self lies the key to flow activities.
A simple diagram might help explain why this should be the case. Let us assume that Figure 1 represents a specific activity—for example, the game of tennis. The two theoretically most important dimensions of the experience, challenges and skills, are the diagram's axes. The letter A represents Alex, a boy who is learning to play tennis. The diagram shows Alex at four different points in time. When he first starts playing (A), Alex has practically no skills, and the only challenge he faces is hitting the ball over the net. This is not a very difficult feat, but Alex is likely to enjoy it because the difficulty is just right for his rudimentary skills. So at this point he will probably be in flow. But he cannot stay there long. After a while, if he keeps practising, his skills are bound to improve, and then he will grow bored just batting the ball over the net (B). Or it might happen that he meets a more practised opponent, in which case he will realize that there are much harder challenges for him than just lobbing the ball—at that point, he will feel some anxiety (C) concerning his poor performance.
Neither boredom nor anxiety are positive experiences, Alex will be motivated to return to the flow state. How is he to do it? Glancing again at the diagram, we see that if he is bored (B) and wishes to be in flow again, Alex has essentially only one choice: to increase the challenges he is facing. (He also has a second choice, which is to give up tennis altogether—in which case A would simply disappear from the diagram.) By setting himself a new and more difficult goal that matches his skills—for instance, to beat an opponent just a little more advanced than he is—Alex would be back in flow (D).
If Alex is anxious (C), the way back to flow requires that he he could also reduce the challenges he is facing, and thus return to flow where he started (in A), but in practice it is difficult to ignore challenges once one is aware they exist.
The diagram shows that both A and D represent situations in which Alex is in flow. Although each are equally enjoyable, the two states are quite different in that D is a more complex experience than A. It is more complex because it involves greater challenges, and demands greater skills from the player.
But D, although complex and enjoyable, does not represent a stable situation, either. As Alex keeps playing, either he will become bored by the stale opportunities he finds at that level, or he will become anxious and frustrated by his relatively low ability. So the motivation to enjoy himself again will push him to get back in the flow channel, but now at a level of complexity even higher than D.
Figure 1. Increased Complexity = Personal Growth
It is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.
I've been experimenting with using the above approach to athletics training. Here's an interval training program which, for me, is sufficiently complex to keep my mind in a state of flow while training:
Analysing the results adds to the complexity and fun. I find the Nike + system with a Polar heart rate monitor is a cheap and easy way to monitor all the essential parameters for training. As I like to say, "If you don't obtain feedback about what's going on, you can't influence where things are heading." Below is a Nike + chart showing my pulse rate for a training session (including the 10 min warm-up):
And another more recent one (click to enlarge):
With a bit of tweaking between sessions, i.e. by adding a bit more complexity, I was able to better maintain a pulse rate near 150 for the bulk of the session. In just five days of adhering to this routine I've taken 8 minutes off the time to complete the 5 km!
I find this approach to training to training gets me so much into the flow state that sometimes I forget to check my pulse at the one minute interval, and sometime don't notice that I've already completed 5 km. And, that's great because if I can run 5 km at fairly high intensity with virtually zero physical effort--what more could you want?
Want to know more about living in the flow? Then check out the video below, Csikszentmihalyi gives a comprehensive explanation of the process:
- Click here for an excellent article from Runners World on interval training and the importance of personalized recovery times.
- Below is a video which highlights the importance of training, on a regular basis, with a few short bursts at close to 100% effort...