Finding flow: the antidote to boredom and frustration

Feeling a bit ‘meh’?

In my Manchester Hypnotherapy practice, I help my clients learn and understand how the mind works and how they can optimise their capacity to live an enriched, fulfilled life.

Recently I had been struck by how much I was hearing the word ‘meh’, both from my clients and myself. For me, ‘meh’ essentially means boredom, frustration and above all, feeling stuck. Nothing as dramatic as feeling depressed or that you’ve got a ‘real problem’, more of a general sense of restlessness and that niggle of  wanting something more but not quite finding the motivation to do something about it.

I was also surprised how the ‘meh’ feeling was popping up during times of leisure (and I am a huge fan of rest and relaxation). I was lucky enough to go on a three week holiday to Bali last year, which was the ultimate treat. For the most part I had an incredible time but I was shocked by how quickly my enjoyment of rest and relaxation gave way to feelings of vague boredom, anxiety and destructive thoughts that appeared from nowhere. They simply started to fill the vacuum that had been created from all this free time which I had deliberately earmarked for maximum relaxation.

I learned that in fact I did not have an inexhaustible capacity to relax, no matter how stressed and tired I had been feeling. Much to my horror, I realised that I needed a degree of challenge in every part of my life, not just in relation to my career (in my world career and challenge are natural playmates). Because of my fear of burn-out and my reluctance to embrace challenges that I did not perceive as necessary, I was actually denying myself greater fun, connection and learning about myself and the world.

The Boredom Paradox

man with computer I was intrigued by this paradox of living in a society which places so much value on the pursuit of pleasure, entertainment and leisure and yet the boredom epidemic seems to be so widespread. This was even addressed recently in The Guardian, where it was suggested that over stimulation through our constant access to technology (smartphones, tablets) was to blame for our high reported rates of boredom. By reducing our ability to concentrate for extended periods and therefore fully immerse ourselves in the task at hand, technology  can create an obstacle to the state of ‘flow’, a state where greater happiness and fulfilment resides.

Whilst it undoubtedly plays a role, blaming technology for our increased difficulty in experiencing a flow state only tells part of the story. In his book, ‘Flow’, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sets out the qualities of flow and the optimum conditions within which the flow state can thrive. Csikszentmihalyi’s book has transformed how I approach my time, has challenged my aversion to challenge and has provided insights as to how my clients and I can create more flow in our lives. .

What is flow?

Have you ever been so absorbed or immersed in a task that time seemed to either freeze or extend? In that moment you were so engrossed with what you were doing that nothing else mattered, including the outcome of the task and you felt stretched just beyond your capabilities so that no other distraction could enter your mind. It may even have been that whilst doing said task you did not find it a particularly pleasurable experience. It was not until afterwards, when you realised you overcame a challenge and changed as a result you realised how satisfying the experience was?

Artist in flow

These are all qualities of flow, a state we can access through the intense concentration of a goal or task which effortlessly leads us to states of greater happiness and satisfaction rather than pursuing happiness as a goal in itself. The paradox of happiness is that is rarely gained when we make it our target. As Victor Frankl said:

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself”.

Qualities of flow

Csikszentmihalyi identifies 7 key components to the flow experience:

  1. We need to confront a task that we know we have a chance of completing.
  2. We need to be able to concentrate fully on the task.
  3. The task needs to have clear goals and immediate feedback.
  4. Flow tasks utilise a deep involvement that feels effortless, removing from awareness the worries and frustrations of every day life.
  5. We need to exercise control over our actions, rather than participating passively.
  6. Concern for the self disappears yet the self appears stronger after the flow experience is over.
  7. Our sense of time is altered.

The good news is we can create flow experiences in a whole range of contexts whether its work, rock climbing, playing the piano, playing chess, writing a book or dancing. A key ingredient is the level of challenge we seek in the task. If the level of challenge is too weak, it will not require the levels of concentration and absorption required to create that deeper sense of involvement which goes hand in hand with flow. Equally, if the level of difficulty or challenge is too high or achievable, we will only feel frustrated, discouraged and self-conscious, which are all barriers to flow.

Clear goals and immediate feedback are also key components of flow. I frequently work with clients in the arts such as dancers, writers and musicians. Arguably for those who work in the creative industries it can be more difficult to set clear goals and gain immediate feedback due to the subjective nature of their work or to know when the task they are working on is ‘finished’. Setting time limits, thematic constraints or joining a peer support network for feedback can all help optimise a flow experience in a creative context. It is often a case of trial and error to determine which system works best for each person, but by doing so we can learn even more about what produces the best possible flow experience for us.

Flow and self-esteem

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from Csikszentmihalyi’s book is how experiencing flow states can build and develop our self-esteem and confidence. Because flow requires complete immersion in the task at hand, our sense of self tends to disappear. We simply don’t have the conscious space to continue worrying about our ego and to surrender entirely to what we are doing. To have a break from who we are, how we are performing and what others think of us is what makes the flow experience so intrinsically rewarding for so many of us.

Even better, once the flow state ends we experience a heightened sense of self-worth and confidence. During our flow experience we would have learned something about ourselves, our world, our ability to address challenges and inevitability we would have grown  as people. We find ourselves in a state of growth.

Growth or protection?

Most of you reading this article will already know and recognise the things that place you in a flow state. Often clients report their strongest flow memories in early childhood which is unsurprising given that a) early childhood presents so many learning opportunities and challenges and b) children are typically far less self-conscious and much less concerned with what other people think about them. So what changes as we approach and enter adulthood?

We also know that when we are not feeling sufficiently challenged we can feel “passive, weak, dull and dissatisfied”, as Csikszentmihalyi found in his research. If we know how rewarding flow can be, why is it that so many of us seek to limit or obstruct those goals or activities that challenge and change us?

From what I have observed in myself and my clients, I believe this often boils down to two key elements:

  1. Developing and practising our ability to concentrate for extended periods. The words ‘discipline’ and ‘consistency’ aren’t often associated with words like satisfaction, fulfilment and contentment. Yet our ability to practice mental and/ or physical discipline and direct our energy in the way we want to is exactly how we can gain a greater sense of control over our experience and resulting happiness.
  2. A choice between growth or protection . By opting out of flow-producing activities (protection), we are choosing the low-risk, static option which may be pleasurable but does not create growth, learning or opportunities to build our self-esteem. It may be that our pre-existing lack of confidence is too distracting for us to immerse ourselves in our chosen activity. By letting go of our fear of growth or that we’re not good enough we are far more likely to be able to access flow and the greater confidence and self-respect this state can bring.

For the record, I am still a huge fan of indulgent pleasures that don’t challenge me. This is not about denying myself a luxurious bubble bath and slavishly learning gymnastics when I’m in a state of exhaustion. Instead, I try to keep TV to a minimum now and spend my leisure time as pro-actively as possible. I recognise the symptoms of the meh virus more readily and I refuse to give in to it in the way I used to. This quote from Csikszentmihalyi has resonated and remained with me:

“Mass leisure, mass culture…when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons…are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before”.

Looking to find more flow? Discover more with Hypnotherapy in Manchester

If you want to live a life with more flow why not contact me today and arrange a free initial consultation at my Manchester hypnotherapy clinic or remotely via Skype. We can explore what a flow-driven life could mean for you and the person you could become as a result.


29 June 2016