I’ve been enjoying listening to archival episodes of Sonny and Sandy’s congenial Podcacher podcast, packed with helpful geocaching tips and adventure stories. I find the geocaching community’s obsession with FTFs (first-to-finds) and high-number finders annoying, but enjoy the deep-woods or out-to-sea live recordings and occasional semi-philosophical musings. In a show from last March, Sonny talks about something near and dear to my heart – the concept of “Flow.”
OK, the topic is a little fluffy-fuzzy, but there’s something important to human happiness here. The bit focuses on the ideas of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, “who has devoted his life’s work to the study of what makes people truly happy, satisfied and fulfilled.” Csikszentmihalyi’s idea is that “flow” is achieved in the balance between challenge and skill. A pro snowboarder on the bunny slopes is bored because skill is high and challenge is low; an amateur on a black diamond run is anxious, because skill is low and challenge is high. But an amateur on a bunny hill and a pro on a black diamond both experience the same balance between challenge and skill, and thus both experience the same state of “flow,” where time and cares slip away, and the activity becomes total, consuming.
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.
The conversation is focused on geocaching of course – a game where skill and difficulty levels vary hugely from cache to cache – but any activity, properly balanced, can lead to a sense of flow. Even walking through the city, if attention is focused, can deliver this sense of timelessness and involvement. I often have similar thoughts when biking, or navigating through crowds on foot.
This is exactly why I get so annoyed (experience anxiety) when people stand on the left side of the escalator, or try to get on the train before others have gotten off. These things feel to me like cultural apathy toward any sense of collective flow. I want to feel like we’re all psychically coordinated, a school of fish thinking as one, rather than a bunch of atoms bouncing off each other in chaotic Brownian motion.
Loose thoughts for a Saturday morning.