Flow and The Economy of Meaning

Tue, Feb 22, 2011


In his book, Thrive, Dan Buettner, provides us with a valuable glimpse into the economy of meaning in action, when he travels to the Odder, Denmark, to visit one of its folk schools and finds that he is “increasingly convinced that (the folk schools) had helped create an environment that favored what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow: “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”(1)

So why does flow make us happy and engaged? It is because the activities are leading to a growth in our consciousness. To achieve flow we have to balance our ability against the challenge of a task, which means, we are right on the boundary of our consciousness, where everything we know and have done has taken us, and when flow occurs we are pushing against this boundary optimally, not so hard that we burn out, but just hard enough that we optimally expand our boundary. What keeps us attached to our task is calling from deep inside, a calling from our subconscious, and at its very core, our subconscious lives to grow our whole being, our whole mind. So it is this very pushing and growing keeps us in our task.

Csikszentmihalyi, connects this concept of flow with the state of happiness, claiming “happiness is not something that just happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance… it does not depend on outside events, but how we interpret them; something that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended.” He then goes on to explain that happiness comes to “people who learn to control their inner experience,” and only comes by “being fully involved with every detail of our lives.”(2) Each and everyone of these statements points to happiness created when we create and find meaning, when we are able to assign meaning to what we are doing and what is going on around our lives.

The path to creating flow is the path to creating meaning.  Like a map, meaning helps us chart a course of experience which increases meaning and as we achieve greater meaning we achieve a state of flow.  Flow happens when we are creating meaning.  For most of us, we only accomplish this occasionally and we misconstrue the feeling of flow with a need to find excitement and a high, but in actual fact this feeling is the feeling of flow where we can feel our consciousness grow and as we engage in The Economy of Meaning we will achieve greater and greater flow.

(1) Geirland, John (1996). “Go With The Flow”. Wired magazine, September, Issue 4.09.

(2) Mihaly, Csikszentmihalyi (1990). “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”

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