Stop Shoulding All Over Yourself! (A Short Discussion of Flow and Human Potential)

When I steal the ball in an intramural basketball game, break past my defender, and sprint for a layup, I won’t hear you if you scream my name. When I pole-vaulted in high school, launching myself 8 feet in the air to clear a plastic bar, I never heard my parents’ cheers, no matter how loudly they howled my name. I have no hearing problems, so why, no matter how loud the yelp or cry, will I never register a voice during these moments? Flow.

Different psychologists and theorists have different terms for this sensation, the moments in which the past and future cease to exist and you are entirely immersed in the present. A.H. Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, dubbed these mystical, transcendental happenings “peak experiences.” According to Maslow, almost everyone has peak experiences, though some are more intense then others. Mild forms might include the feeling of a loss of self after extended periods of steady exercise, like hiking or distance running, while more intense, mystical peak experiences might include witnessing an unexpected yet dazzling sunset, a moment of natural grandeur in which the world just is.

Still confused? Maslow gives various descriptions of what having a peak experience actually feels like. First and foremost, these moments of flow are natural and organic. Peak experiences happen in moments of spontaneity and are never planned and produced. Second, during a peak experience the world is unified and you know your place in it. Third, these experiences bring about an onslaught of positive emotions. Our textbook highlights some common feelings: “peakers feel both more humble and more powerful at the same time. They feel passive, receptive, more desirous of listening, and more capable of hearing. Simultaneously, they feel more responsible for their activities and perceptions, more active, and more self-determined.” Anxiety and fear dissolve, replaced with acceptance, spontaneity, awe, and rapture. Time and space cease to matter. Everyday worries disappear. Peakers have no needs or wants or wishes because the present consumes them.

Unfortunately, we can’t will ourselves to have peak experiences and moments of flow. However, we can strive towards self-actualization (a rather loaded term for Maslow, a simple definition of self-actualization is total psychological health, characterized by acceptance of self, others, and nature; spontaneity, simplicity, and naturalness; and autonomy, among other characteristics). Self-actualization is associated with Maslow’s 14 “B-values,” or “being values,” which include weighty words like truth, wholeness, playfulness, and completion. If makes sense, then, that only 1 to 2% of all people in the United States are self-actualized. The B-values are elusive. In fact, before people can even attempt to grapple with values of being, they must climb up Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. The levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, starting from the bottom, are physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs, and, finally, self-actualization. The first four needs are deficit needs, because if you don’t have enough of one need (a.k.a. a deficit), you feel the need and are motivated to fulfill it. But once you get all you need—say, once you eat a meal after feeling hungry—you no longer feel anything and therefore you feel no motivation. Self-actualization, the top tier, is unique, because when self-actualization needs (“being needs”) are met, they continue to exist and may actually become stronger. They continually motivate us towards growth.

Self-actualization can be a scary thing, though. In fact, an entire complex exists that is one root reason as to why many people cannot self-actualize. The Jonah complex, named for the Biblical character, is Maslow’s idea that “we fear our best as well as our worst” (the quote is from his book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature). We fear success and being truly great just as much as we fear failure. Let me ask you some questions: how many of you hope to write the next great novel? Do you hope to be the next President? How about a phenomenal composer or revolutionary leader?

If you reacted at all like Maslow’s psychology graduate students when they were asked similar questions, you may have smiled at my apparent jokes, perhaps blushed, or thought, “Come on. Me? Great novel? Ha!” But why not!? Why not you? Why do these questions make us uncomfortable and nervous to the point where we deem them silly to escape providing a truthful answer? Someone has to be the next president and someone has to write the next great novel. Why not you? In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow states: “You must want to be the best, the very best you are capable of becoming. If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.”

Maslow’s cry to action becomes even more inspiring upon learning that Maslow had a terrible childhood in which he dealt with severe feelings of shyness, inferiority, and depression. Maslow, a guy who produced one of the most inspiring theories of personality I’ve encountered, was once a small kid, a kid who brought home some abandoned kittens. He brought them home out of pity and fed them milk only to watch his mom smash the kittens against a wall until they died. She was angry with the youngster for bringing them home. If Maslow, someone who experienced such a terrible and traumatic childhood, could be so positive, so optimistic about human potential and greatness, we should be equally excited for human potential. Go write the next great novel! Be creative! Do something that matters.

Karen Horney, a personality theorist we discussed last week, said that the tyranny of the “shoulds” (I should do this, I should do that, I should, should, should…) was one factor leading to neurosis. After reading Maslow, I think the tyranny of the shoulds also prevents us from self-actualizing and having peak experiences. How can we immerse ourselves in the present if we are worrying about the future and all the things we should do. So I give you this: stop shoulding all over yourself! Get out there and flow.

2 replies on “Stop Shoulding All Over Yourself! (A Short Discussion of Flow and Human Potential)”

  1. Surprised to read a post about flow with no mention of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was introduced to Csikszentmihalyi’s work as a psych student at CC and went on to read a lot more on my own. Fascinating stuff!

    1. You’re completely right! Perhaps I should have strayed away from using the term “flow” interchangeably with “peak experience.” But we are discussing Csikszentmihalyi early fourth week, I believe, so I will be more knowledgeable then.

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