In this TEDx talk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, originator of the flow concept, summarizes the results of more than a decade of research on “positive psychology.” The conclusion is that there are three primary sources of happiness, reliable predictors of a sense of well-being:
1. Engagement, or “Flow,” a mental state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.
2. Meaning, the feeling that what you are doing connects you to something greater than yourself.
In descending order of reliability. Because pleasure is the least reliable of the three, the easiest to access, and the one for which there is already an active market with abundant entrepreneurs supplying various ways to receive pleasure, I will ignore it below.
The other two, however, are inadequately “supplied.” Most people do not experience a flow state most of the time, and many people do not find life as meaningful as they could.
Csikszentmihalyi began his research on flow by studying those individuals, such as artists, who became so lost in their work that they had no interest in other activities. Originally it appeared to be a characteristic that was found with some specific activities, such as art, or chess playing, or rock climbing, or brain surgery. But gradually it became apparent that it was not about the activity – it was about the state of mind, about the way in which the mind engaged with reality. Thus in his later work Csikszentmihalyi became interested in individuals who lived life itself in a flow state, waking up and being deeply engaged in compelling, essentially joyful activity all day every day. He and others began to see various contemplative traditions, both western and eastern, as orienting the mind so that it would interpret reality in such a way that all of experience became a flow state.
It turns out that while some people may spontaneously be able to live life in a flow state, for most people it requires a lengthy process of developing specific mental and emotional habits and attitudes that few of us were born with. Thus for most people, in order to live life in a flow state we need to undergo a supportive process within which we “tune” or align our mental and emotional habits such that we can engage the world in a flow state most of the time.
The perfect time for doing this, indeed the critical time for doing this, is the period currently occupied by K-12 “education.” Yet essentially no aspect of mainstream K-12 develops these abilities. To his credit, Csikszentmihalyi understands that Montessori education, with its long, focused independent work periods in which students are encouraged to develop habits of self-direction, is the right kind of experience. But Montessori is marginalized in our education system, and high quality scaleable Montessori is not possible in highly regulated public or charter schools.
Beyond Montessori, the Socratic Practice that I live and transmit allows one to enter an intellectual flow state. Classroom experiences become a flow state for many students (see “The First Three Days of Socratic Practice in an Inner City Classroom”). In addition, my life has largely become a flow state – I wake up and am actively engaged in solving problems all day every day, problems that engage and delight me, most days, most of the time.
Beyond Montessori and Socratic Practice, there are literally countless experiences that can develop a child’s ability to enter life as a flow state. It is worth mentioning in particular diverse Eastern practices, including meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other “internal arts” that develop mindfulness.
That said, in addition to education that develops the ability to live in a flow state, it is important to be engaged in meaningful flow – flow-as-computer-gaming is ultimately not very satisfying. For some, traditional religions provide a satisfying meaning framework, for others eastern religion or new age spirituality provide such a framework, for others still it is political activity that provides such a meaning framework.
For now, I’ll only point out that if we want education to contribute to “happiness and well-being for all,” it is important that our meaning frameworks not support aggression, nor that they be zero-sum. I see Be the Solution as a sketch of a meaning framework that satisfies these conditions.
I make similar arguments to this in my TEDx Grand Rapids talk, Innovate: Experience.