May 17, 2016 Blog No Comments

Falucca sail on the NileAs I watched my husband play an event with a few other accomplished musicians, I marveled at their ease, joy and complete focused attention. They sounded fabulous. In music terminology, they were in the pocket. In other words, they were in the flow. There is nothing better than being in that place. There is a certain abandon and ecstasy to it. Once you have experienced it, you know you’ll seek it again.

I had just heard Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi’s Ted Talk on NPR about “flow” as a foundation for self–actualization.* He talked about it as part of an exploration of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Self-Actualization being the elusive level of personal development that goes beyond material success to obtain full purpose and meaning in our life. It’s the ultimate life lived well.

As a professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, Csikszentmihalyi has been researching this for the past three decades. He is the director of their Quality of Life Research Center and has authored many books and papers about joy and fulfillment. He is one of the founders of the field of positive psychology.

He referenced a longitudinal study that consistently notes that since 1956 only 30% of people report being “very happy”, despite the staggering material success our culture has enjoyed over those decades. Clearly, as the saying goes, “money doesn’t buy happiness” and this study has documented it.

So what does make us happy? That is the question Csikszentmihalyi has asked. He began interviewing artists, scientists, composers and all manner of creative people who devote their life to doing something they love. He has conducted over 8,000 interviews to come to the conclusion that there are 7 clear indicators that separate those 30% of people who are very happy and consumed with what they are doing from the other 70%.

Let me dig into this. I find it fascinating, because in my work I have experienced that flow and once you’ve experienced it, you simply want more. And, if you’re like me, you love being around creative people so you can vicariously absorb their inspired energy.

Let’s look at what gets us in the flow and what we experience in it:


It starts with finding work or a hobby that you believe is worth doing for its own sake. It’s not about monetary reward or fame or glory – it is something you seek out because it is part of who you are and it requires your absolute devotion.

Who do you know who does this? I think about my mother’s beautiful gardens where she poured so much careful, focused, and artistic attention. And my father’s passionate discipline for his work which absorbed him seven days a week. My husband has his music and cooking. I’m sure you have examples as well.

When I wrote about Hiromi, in the article “What Makes You MASTER of Your Trade?”, I described many of the same things required to be in the flow. You need to approach your work or hobby with:

  •  Authenticity – to do only what speaks to you with love
  • Passion and Joy – to be able to fully envelop what you are doing
  • Discipline and Technique –to deepen your skill and knowledge
  • Desire to Expand the Edges – to keep the passion for the subject alive and viable

According to Csikszentmilhalyi’s, it is this later quality that becomes the tangible emotional component that keeps people involved and in the flow.

Flow comes while being aroused by what you are doing and masterly in control of it.


Here is the list of 7 qualities that Csikszentmilhalyi’s research has shown to be the experience of people who are in the flow of their work:

1. Completely involved in what you are doing – focused concentration
2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside of everyday reality
3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well you’re doing
4. Knowing that the activity is doable – and our skills are capable of the task
5. A sense of serenity – no worries about ourselves and a sense you are growing beyond the boundarino  of the ego
6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present; hours can go by in minutes
7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produced this feeling becomes its own reward

If you have had this experience, then you know the truth of this list. It will ring true for all 7 of these qualities. There is nothing else like it. It is the quality of complete absorption, loss of ego, the clarity of knowing and the innate motivation to keep going forward because it’s that important to you. It is so significant I think I can safely say:

If you have experienced flow, then you know the direction of your life’s passion and purpose.

How does this fit for your experience? If you have it regularly, then you must be affirmed that you are on the right track! If you haven’t had it, then surely you are curious and want to understand how you can find it for yourself. If you have had it, but not in a while, then you must wonder what is keeping you from it now?

If this is something you’d like to know more about for yourself, it is a focus of my work in Transformational Coaching. I welcome you to contact me here or at my website for more information. A free consultation is offered to help you determine if my services would be helpful. I look forward to hearing from you.

* Ted Talk Reference:

Written by Connie Milligan, LCSW
If there is anything I’ve expressed that speaks to you, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at my email, connie [at] conniemilligan [dot] com