“The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task…”
-Wikipedia definition of flow
While searching for a Minecraft video on YouTube, my nine-year-old stumbled upon a video about making a stove out of a tin can. I’ll save the problem of “stumbling upon” videos on YouTube for another post. For now, I’d like to focus not on my supervision short-comings, but instead on what resulted from his tin can stove discovery.
He got excited.
He focused on a goal.
He spent time happily working on something (not on a screen!) for more than an hour and was enthusiastic about sharing it with others. This is something that, unfortunately, has not happened much lately.
According to the Wikipedia definition,
“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”
Eminent Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” and penned a book by the same name to describe a state that others might call being “in the moment” or “in the zone.” Flow has been researched extensively in the past few years by Positive Psychologists seeking to determine what brings people happiness.
Psychologists like Csikszentmihalyi have found that flow is the way we feel when we are doing something we passionately enjoy. We can’t wait to do the activity again, and we feel a lot of positive emotions while participating in the activity. We can stick with it for hours without even noticing the time going by. In fact, when we’re in flow, it’s hard to stop whatever we’re doing. People achieve it in all different activities, including while playing a musical instrument, playing a sport, writing, painting, attending a concert, bird watching, riding a horse, or running, to name a few. Often we cannot relate to the passion others have for their personal “flow” activity, since their enthusiasm and passion seem inordinately high. For the lucky ones among us, we find flow in our daily work.
Young children are naturally in a state of flow a lot during unstructured play time. As they create their pretend worlds, “cook” in the sand box, build a fort, or swing high on a swing, they are joyful and time flies by for them. Young children are experts at happily living in the moment. As they get older, we seem to consistently suck the flow out of them through endless boring worksheets and sports drills that take away their free time. If there were a graph showing the amount of time people spent in a state of flow compared to their age, I’m guessing it would be a pretty steep downward slope, veering up at the point in young adulthood (or adulthood) when a passion for something is discovered. For some, sadly, it may never veer back up.
The simple video showed how to turn a tin can into a simple outdoor stove. Sharp tools, work gloves, and fire were involved. My son was excited and immediately searched out an available can. After thirty minutes in the garage, he reported he was ready for lighting the fire. The stove was a bit lopsided but still provided a fun driveway campfire. He mastered the construction process by the second stove, which he built as soon as he had free time the next day after school. On another video (located near the tin can stove one), he discovered a more substantial outdoor stove built from bricks. The video said it would cost him $6, but he was thrilled to find bricks on sale and spent $4.25 on 17 bricks. He could hardly wait to get home, finish his homework, have dinner, and finally get a chance to build his stove. After dinner, he constructed it, gathered his kindling, and lit his new stove that resembled a miniature outdoor chimney. He plans on sharing his building technique with kids at camp this summer.
Seeing him so happy and excited about his outdoor stove this week made me think about how, most days, he is not even close to being in a state of flow. I would guess that a few lucky kids are passionate about a subject in school, a sport, or a hobby that they have discovered at a very young age. He’s not one of them. He’s really happy doing a lot of camp activities, and is especially smitten with wakeboarding, but he can’t live at camp all the time (much to his dismay). During the school year, he and his siblings have spent a lot of time participating in activities their classmates, siblings, and friends do, or that we parents think are important. But many of these activities have not brought a lot of intrinsic satisfaction and joy, even when they’ve had success at them and enjoyed the camaraderie of being on the team.
As parents, we need to guard our kids’ days and be sure we allow time for discovering and creating and reaching that elusive state called flow. All kids deserve the chance to find an activity that they truly love and that makes them happy, even if it means foregoing a sport they’re good at but not passionate about. I’d like for my kids to just enjoy the activity for it’s own intrinsic benefits, without the pressure to earn an award, achieve certification, or gain recognition due to their participation.
My seventeen-year-old older daughter plays piano beautifully, but she doesn’t like to play in front of anyone but our family. I’ve often pushed her to use her skill somewhere, or at least play in front of people. But I now realize that it’s an amazing gift to have something that she loves to do, that relaxes her and makes her happy, and that she does purely for how it makes her feel. She will always have the piano and the opportunity to sit down and get in her flow for a while.
I recently read a book that challenged me to think back on what I loved to do when I was around 10-12 years old. The idea was to think back to what activity I loved to do then and see if I still practice it now, because most likely, the activity would still bring me pleasure. I had an unstructured childhood with tons of free time, so around that age, I had discovered the following things I enjoyed: catching frogs in the backyard pond, hiking up the creek and swinging across it on vines, sewing, playing and talking with friends, taking pictures, writing in my journal, and reading. As this memory exercise predicted, those are still things I enjoy (minus the frogs!).
When given the time to discover, maybe all our kids can find their passions and, as a result, be happier. After watching my son’s joy over building a simple stove, I’m convinced I need to carve out more free time for discovery. Who knows what he’ll build next?
What are your kids passionate about?
Do you see them in a state of flow? Doing what?
What did you love when you were younger that you haven’t done as an adult? Might it be time to take up an old hobby?
Flow (the book)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness (TED Talk)