Optimal Living: Insights From Flow Theory

What does it mean to live optimally? Is there any difference between self actualization and self-transcendence? Do peak performances and peak experiences differ? The last question was asked yesterday by Scott Barry Kaufman on twitter and it got me thinking.

The thoughts triggered were too large to fit in a few tweets, so here is the longer blog post; thanks Scott for the inspiration.

To start off, lets recall what flow is ; its typically associated with deep engrossment and peak performance during a task. When thinking about tasks two dimensions are relevant: how difficult is the task and what are the skills of the person executing the task.

When task is of high difficulty, and skills are low, it may lead to experience of anxiety in the person; when task is of low difficulty and skills are high, it may lead to relaxation/ boredom. Only when task difficulty is slightly greater or matched than skills does the possibility of flow emerges. With adequate in time feedback and no distractions, one can get into a state of flow. Another point to remember is that the idea is to keep increasing task difficulty and keep adding to you skills – thus high task difficulty and high skills are associated with flow; while low task difficulty and low skills lead to apathy.

Flow diagram courtesy Wikipedia

It is safe to assume that micro moments of flow where task difficulty/challenge is slightly greater than skills, helps in building up your skills over time leading to increased probability of peak performances in the limit. Thus peak performances are related to flow and are evident in some task related activities.

Now, one of the framework I have been using is to divide our focus of inquiry among TASK, SELF, OTHERS and LIFE. Basically in some contexts you are totally TASK focused, and your primary goal may be achieving success, in some you are SELF focused and your primary goal may be achieving eudiamonic happiness; in yet others your focus may be (significant) OTHERS and your primary goal finding meaning via connection while in yet other contexts, you be focused on LIFE as a whole and your primary goal being a moral person. Now you don’t have to believe in this framework, but I used this to derive some insights below:

First off, analogous to TASK having two dimensions related to performance, I think its useful to think about two dimensions of SELF related to expression of SELF. First is self-discrepancy operationalised as distance between ideal and actual self. The higher the discrepancy the more the ideal, sought after self differs from actual self. The other dimension of interest is self-acceptance. This is operationalised as how much at peace we are with our actual self.

Now consider someone with high self discrepancy and low self acceptance. They are likely to feel sadness; on the other hand someone with high self acceptance but low self discrepancy will be complacent as far as growing and expressing ones true self is concerned, because there is no/ little internal pressure to change. Growth happens when self discrepancy is slightly greater than self acceptance; you are comfortable with who you are but also aiming to change and become better. Analogous to flow, one maybe led into these micro moments of growth that I call flowering. Over time as you keep raising the bar for ideal self and keep accepting who you are: your strengths as well as limitations – you re likely to experience peak expressions of your self and likely to become self -actualized.

I wish I was not lazy and could make a diagram/ figure to explain this better, but if you are feeling stuck make a 2D graph for SELF with self discrepancy on y axis and self acceptance on x axis, analogous to the flow diagram.

Next up, consider the context where we are dealing with (significant ) OTHERS . Consider two dimensions that may underpin that dynamics : our mutual demandingness from/ towards others and our mutual caringness/ concern from/towards the others. Consider for example a parenting relationship: if demandingness is high, but caring is low one feels anger / irritability; if however demandingness is low, but caring is high one start taking things for granted, gets lax/ stagnant. For a mutually beneficial relationship, the demandingness has to be just slightly above the caring/ nurturing that enables one to meet the demands. When that happens one experiences moments of love/ intimacy and the relationship grows and connection is felt. Over time as mutual demands increase and mutual care increases, one feels peak experiences characterized by love and connectedness and moves towards self transcendence.

Finally, consider LIFE. The two dimensions of relevance here are life responsibilities and life supports. When life responsibilities are high and life supports (like social support, adequate income etc ) are less, one is likely to feel guilt and maybe disgust at the life one is living: life will feel a burden. On the other hand if life supports are high , but life responsibilities are low, one is likely to feel dissipated and lead a life of decadence. However, when life responsibilities are just matched or greater than ones supports , one is likely to be in a zone where life is felt a gift to be enjoyed and a privilege. These micro moments of living up to your responsibilities, may lead to peak living.

So that is my basic premise: Peak Performance (in a task) can be distinguished from Peak Experiences (in our relationships with others ), which can further be distinguished from Peak Expressions (of self) and Peak Living. Hope these lead to some insights and Scott/ someone else actually tries to elaborate/ verify the model .

A disclaimer while I am familiar with Mihaly’s original work on Flow/ peak performances my knowledge of Malsow/peak experiences is via secondary sources and readings only.

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