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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Getting in the Flow

There's a difference between appearing successful and feeling successful, and it's the feeling part I'm after. Of course the appearing part matters -- I do have various material goals. The main characteristic I'm seeking, however, is a feeling. Maybe it could also be called self-worth, or self-esteem, or self-confidence. I call it success.

Appearing successful, after all, is relative. Indeed, one of my friends described my life as "the classic success story," i.e., a lovely house in the suburbs; good marriage; good kids. What more could anyone need to feel successful? That's what I'm trying to find out. I could point out that what I paid for my house in upstate NY, wouldn't buy even a studio apartment in Manhattan. I might consider my friend H, who has a lawyer husband, doesn't need to work outside the home, and has a gorgeous apartment that is the entire eleventh floor of a prewar building on the Upper West Side, plus a home in the Hamptons, to be successful.

We all know plenty of stories, though, of people who have all the trappings of material, worldly success on the outside, but who are secretly tens of thousands of dollars in debt, secretly paralyzed by terrible marriages, secretly suffering with difficult children, etc, etc.

A corollary is the person, like my friend R, who has excelled on the worldly success level, but announces that she never feels totally satisfied with herself. She stands on her tiptoes, raises her hand way above her head, and says, "I always expect this of myself," then lowers her hand to chin level, "and I always feel I end up like this."  Or the Pulitzer Prize winning writer I know, who can't help feeling bothered when a book of his doesn't get reviewed in the New York Times.

So it's the feeling of success I'm searching for. My sister, a psychoanalyst, describes feeling successful as being in a state of flow. I've come across the term, defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (No, I can't pronounce it -- but my sister can.) In brief, flow is a state of immersed, energetic focus on a task. The work must be intrinsically rewarding, and balance between being challenging, but not too challenging.  In flow, a person is emotionally and intellectually engaged, working hard, but not aware of time passing. In short, we like to exert effort, but rewarded effort, and when the exertion produces results, we feel successful.

2 comments:

  1. I suspect it is indeed the state of flow--feeling immersed in and fulfilled by a task--that will provide the sensation of being successful, rather than the house in the Hamptons and the floor-through, pre-war apartment on the Upper West Side! By the way, your house looks gorgeous.

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  2. I definitely experience flow at times, and it does feel really great. I'm beginning to wonder if there's a way to feel successful most of the time, or it is just a feeling resulting from various experiences, and transient, as all feelings are...

    yes, the house is lovely. But.

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