Monday, May 08, 2006

Eudaimonia & Flow

One of the best things about homeschooling for me and my daughters was always that we could tweak our circumstances to maximize the opportunities for what psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi called "flow," that feeling of total engagement and well-being you can get when whatever you're doing is going really well.

Flow is closely related, I think, to one of my current favorite words:
eudaimonia -- That particular kind of joy you feel, when you're doing something at which you excel. The joy of the virtuoso, of performing a function well; the feeling of well-being from excellence or skill of a particular thing, no future goal being in sight.

Writing is one of those activities that can provoke these states for me. Not always, and hardly ever when I expect it, but every once in a while, usually late at night when I've planned to go to bed early but decide to finish just one more sentence—well, maybe just this one more paragraph, or I suppose I could go ahead and finish this section—and then suddenly it's 3:30 am, and I've been completely unaware of the passage of time, my neck is knotted up on one side, and as I stretch, I realize that my fingers and wrists ache.

But I feel great—who wouldn't? (And I've been known, under such circumstances, to celebrate a bit before finally wandering upstairs into bed, by indulging myself with a little Scharffen Berger 80% or some Ben & Jerry's Dublin Mudslide or Brownie Batter.)

One of the tweaks, of course, that helps me fall into those flow states, is music. I remember, as manuscript deadlines approached, and more of those late nights became necessary, being thrilled with that newfangled feature of my then-laptop: the CD drive. I could play my favorite music on my computer, with headphones, into the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, a particular album would obsess me—Eileen Ivers' fiddle music worked for a week or two, I remember—I'd play it over and over until I finished the chapter I was working on.

Half the time, the last song would end and I'd suddenly realize I'd been typing in silence for half an hour, I was so absorbed in what I was writing. Eventually, the silence would get to me, and I'd have to decide whether to play it all again or change to something else.

Now, of course, the technology is vastly improved—I can resort to custom playlists and thoroughly indulge my musical moods when I sit down to write. (Tonight, it's Nina Simone.) And it's rare to see Christie sketching or reading or working trig problems without her iPod—she seems to have adopted the family flow technique, too.

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