My Favorite Graph Can Make You Happy

I don’t consider myself to be a math guy, but I’ve been known to enjoy a good graph every once in a while. There’s something kind of satisfying in seeing a visual representation of  a cause and effect relationship. I wouldn’t opt for a graph, but I’ll take it if it’s right in front of me–similar to a Heineken.

Early on in my arts education, I was exposed to a graph that changed my perception on just about everything. We covered this for a couple of weeks in a course I took my freshman year of college and it was provocative enough to stay with me. Even five years later, I find myself getting impressed by how many applications it has.

It is my favorite graph and I’m sharing it with you because I believe that everyone can benefit from knowing about it.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s  visual representation of flow. Image via Business Insider.

That’s it. That’s my favorite graph in the world.

If you’re not familiar with it, that’s pioneering psychologist’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s depiction of what his theory of flow looks like. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing.” During this experience, self-consciousness “disappears” and individuals report feeling a powerful sensation of purpose and satisfaction. While in flow, individuals often lose track of time–either spending what feels like twenty minutes in a mere moment or watching hours pass by as if they were minutes.

When I was introduced to this concept, I immediately recognized it as the sensation that I get when I am engrossed in a writing project or another creative endeavor. It’s a feeling of excitement and concentration that allows you to transcend reality by forgetting everything that’s not your current project. It’s an incredible rush.

Truth be told, my decision to pursue a career in writing and the arts was based out of a desire to experience flow as often as I could. It’s hard to describe flow to someone who hasn’t felt it without sounding like a lunatic, but I believe that if you have felt it, you understand why it’s worth pursuing.

As Csikszentmihalyi writes, there are near infinite ways that people can experience flow, from partaking in creative endeavors to playing recreational sports and from working on an assembly line to listening to music. As long as you have a “goal-directed, rule bound action system” that presents immediate “clear clues as to how one is performing,” you can enter the flow state of mind–your skills just need to be equal to the challenge at hand.

Of course, entering flow does not need to be a deliberate action. Unless they are conscious of a hundred percent of their abilities, I suspect that most people, including myself, slip into flow without anticipating it. There were occasions during my time working at Goodwill that I would realize that I spent most of my shift so fixated on my assignments that I lost track of time. Driving home, I would remember my favorite graph and realize that I was in a perfect situation for flow: my skills matched the challenge and I received immediate feedback.

As my Goodwill skills continued to develop, I sought out increasingly difficult tasks while at work in order to keep myself interested and to invite flow into my daily activity. In fact, to my observation, all of my coworkers who were successful at their jobs seemed to occupy the space where their skills perfectly complemented their tasks. As a supervisor, I aimed to assign my coworkers relatively challenging tasks in which I knew they could excel. If I was unable to do that, I was prepared to either get complaints from people who were either stressed or people who were bored out of their minds.

Besides people who have complexes and prefer to feel either overwhelmed or totally disengaged, I assume that most people want to take a dip in the flow channel if they can, so I’ll share what I know from my own experience:

First, you need to pinpoint roughly where you are on my favorite graph: A1, A2, A3 or A4.


Are you on A1? Awesome! You’re in flow! Have fun! Just remember that your skills are going to grow, so you need to keep looking for new challenges to get back into flow.

A2? You are bored. Your brain can’t be bothered to care about the task at hand because the task is too easy. You don’t want to waste your time being bored so I’d suggest applying yourself to a more difficult challenge to get closer to flow.

Are you on A3? To get closer to flow, you may need to reassess your goals for the situation, if you can. Or, if you don’t have that much control over the challenge or its goals, you need to work on becoming more skilled. Fortunately, being in A3 means that you’re in a place to learn and grow, so your skills will probably improve if you continue to invest effort into solving the problem at hand.

A4? You’re back in flow! You learned new things and found something more worthy of your talents to work on and are having a kickass time. Good for you! Get ready to do it all again!

As you can see, obtaining flow is an ongoing process. Once you’ve reached flow by doing something once, you probably won’t be able to reach it again by doing the same exact thing, especially if you were successful the first time. This is because you need a degree of risk and doubt to be involved in order to sync with flow. There ought to be consequences for you not succeeding. You can’t be certain that you will succeed. If you’re certain you’ll succeed, you’re drifting towards boredom. If there’s nothing at stake, then it’s not that much of a challenge, is it?

Understanding how flow works isn’t just about having a good time. It’s about doing something just for the sake of doing it. It’s about finding genuine satisfaction with oneself. It’s about being in harmony with your environment. It’s about doing something that only you can. It’s about forgoing commercial products that promise happiness and actually feeling something real and worthwhile.

It’s my favorite graph.


If this has interested you and you want to take the ultimate journey into flow, you owe it to yourself to read the entirety of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

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