In my previous article, I described the experience of flow, a state that a person enters when fully absorbed in a challenging but doable activity. Flow seems to be most common in the context of work (defined by Dr. Kevin Majeres, a psychologist at Harvard University, as “ordered and sustained attention”1) because for many of us, work requires specific skills, is goal-oriented, plays by specific rules, and requires us to pay focused attention–all of which are important for flow. As a mom who stayed home with my children, and as an educator, I am interested in how flow does or does not happen in settings outside of traditional work. I will talk about a few such settings here.
Flow and Parenting
I find flow particularly interesting in the context of parenting. In All Joy and No Fun, author Jennifer Senior observes that experiences of flow can be scarce for parents of young children. She writes, “Csikszentmihalyi…noticed that we enjoy ourselves most when we’re positioned ‘at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with (our) capacity to act.’ Yet parents of young children often describe the sensation of lurching back and forth between those two poles—boredom and anxiety—rather than being able to comfortably settle somewhere in the middle. ‘To the extent that we are not maximally happy when we’re with our young children,’ says Daniel Gilbert, the social psychologist, ‘it could be that they’re demanding things of us we find difficult to give. But it could also be that they’re not demanding that much.’”2
This resonates with my experience. When my kids were small, it was one of the things I found most difficult about being home with young children all day every day. My husband and I found ways to carve out a small amount of (mostly) uninterrupted time for me each day, and the opportunity to dive into a project did wonders for my mental state and, by extension, for the well-being of our whole family. I hope more families with young children will recognize periodic alone time as a legitimate need for both parents, and work to meet it. Deep, focused time spent doing something you love—whether in the flow state or not—can be more restorative than the passive inactivity of much modern leisure, especially if your days tend to be spent constantly task-switching.
“Deep, focused time spent doing something you love… can be more restorative than the passive inactivity of much modern leisure…”
Flow in the Classroom
I also think about flow in relation to education. Young children find deep enjoyment in learning and growth. In his book Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi commented, “Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. Perhaps because ‘learning’ becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out.”3 Perhaps flow—a uniquely satisfying experience—can help bring back the connection between growth and enjoyment, both for teachers and for students.
My children experienced flow during long hours of free time when they learned at home. Because classrooms tend to be so highly scheduled, I assumed flow to be an unlikely experience there. But perhaps a classroom, with its rules and potential for feedback, can be tweaked to allow for flow experiences. Csikszentmihalyi wrote that early childhood experiences influence whether a person readily enters flow. He listed five important characteristics for the flow-friendly home that I think may also apply to the classroom:
Perhaps flow…can help bring back the connection between growth and enjoyment, both for teachers and for students.”
- 1. Clarity. Expectations are clear.
- 2. Centering. Children perceive that parents (and teachers) are interested in them in the present, not focused on future potentials and problems.
- 3. Choice. Children have possibilities from which they can choose.
- 4. Commitment. Children trust parents (and teachers and fellow students) enough to set aside their defenses and let go of self-consciousness.
- 5. Challenge. Parents (and teachers) provide increasingly complex challenges for children.
In addition to the overall atmosphere, activities in the classroom (and elsewhere) can be designed in a way that makes entering flow more likely. Such activities have rules that require students to learn skills. They include specific goals and provide frequent feedback. They allow students to be in control of the task. Activities may include competition, which can help increase the level of challenge if students’ abilities are evenly matched. Within a single classroom, the difficulty level of activities may need to be adjustable, to ensure that the challenge can be matched to each student’s skill level.
Flow and Character
One final thought. Dr. Kevin Majeres, mentioned earlier, has a unique approach to flow that I think worth noting. While we most often think of flow in relation to activities we do, Majeres suggests pursuing flow in terms of who we want to be. He challenges people to aim for certain character qualities they would like to build, and to focus their attention throughout the day on demonstrating those character traits. I have not experimented much with this approach to flow, but I like the idea very much. This also strikes me as a potentially helpful way to approach a spiritual discipline such as practising the presence of God. 4 For example, Frank Laubach invented a ‘Game with Minutes’ with a goal of living in a continual awareness of God’s presence. It includes many elements that are consistent with flow: it has a specific and challenging goal, it requires focused attention, and it has suggested ‘rules’ for playing the game.
We live in a world full of distractions, and it can be difficult to exercise the muscle of attention. However, exercising our minds is as important as exercising our bodies—and requires as much effort. Learning to direct our attention, challenging as that is, is one way to shape consciousness. “Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory”.5 I hope that reading about flow has encouraged you to look for ways to intentionally focus your attention in ways that honour God, benefit others, and help you to grow as a person. As you do, may you find your experience of the world ever deeper and richer!