Welcome back! Think of your favorite activity or maybe sport. Have you ever had an experience that was so engrossing that you lost track of time? Have you ever been in the zone? That is, feeling as though you were completely “dialed in” and that you reached a level of peak performance? Well, many of us do at one time or another, and others experience this feeling more often (e.g., professional athletes, artists, musicians, etc). If you have ever had this experience, then there is a good chance that you reached a state of flow.
The concept of flow was introduced by the late Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Me-hi Cheek-sent-me-hi) back in the 1970’s, but was popularized in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi spent much of his career studying the activities that people enjoyed, and identifying why they enjoyed them. For example, he interviewed artists, athletes, and surgeons among others to assess how they become immersed in the activities associated with their chosen field (Biasutti, 2011). His findings served as the basis for the development of his theory.
Flow occurs when a person achieves a state of being where they become heavily immersed in a specific activity. In doing so, they experience focus, energy, and enjoyment (Bonaiuto et al., 2016). For example, a study of classical pianists found that while they were performing a musical piece, they became so absorbed that measures of their physiology (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, facial muscle contractions) were altered (Manzano et al., 2010). Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009) suggested that a number of factors are often present during flow, such as feeling (rather than thinking) about the activity, concentration on the activity, a sense of control, a disconnection with the conscious self, time elapsing, and enjoying the activity simply for the sake of doing it.
The features of certain activities also make achieving flow more likely. First, the task should be meaningful to the person. Activities that are not considered to be important or interesting do not easily result in flow. For example, if a task is quite repetitive or boring, the individual will likely quit before flow is achieved. Moreover, Csikszentmihalyi noted that there is a balance between how much of a challenge that an activity presents, and the skillset of the person. A very challenging activity may cause anxiety if the person’s skillset is insufficient. Likewise, a task low on challenge may result in boredom if a person’s skillset is high. In other words, there is a “sweet spot” in which flow can occur when an activity is challenging and the person’s skillset is equally up to the task (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). For example, let’s consider a video game. A game that is too easy will quickly become boring, but a game that is too hard will result in frustration. A game that strikes the right balance between the two will be more enjoyable and may lead to flow states.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, achieving flow has positive benefits for our well-being. First, being in a flow state is pleasurable and intrinsically rewarding. It is doing something out of joy rather than having to be persuaded or externally rewarded (e.g., money) to do so. Fun activities also provide an opportunity to be more creative and improve our skillset. However, regularly achieving flow also appears to have longer-term benefits for our mental health. In particular, Csikszentmihalyi believed that having more flow moments in your life is a key contributor to feeling fulfilled. That is, finding ways to actively increase the number of activities that can induce a flow state will ultimately result in greater overall life satisfaction. This doesn’t only have to be just leisure activities or hobbies, but can involve learning new things and also seeking flow states in your career.
Despite the enjoyment and benefit of achieving flow, research by Csikszentmihalyi (1997) estimated that only around 20% of people actually reached a flow state on a regular basis. What can you do to increase flow in your own life? While flow isn’t a light switch that can be turned on and off, Csikszentmihalyi suggested there are several ways to increase the likelihood of flow occurring. For example, pursue activities (as well as a career) that you enjoy. In doing so, also try to set achievable goals and avoid distractions where possible. For instance, if you are completing a report, choose a quiet spot to write and set a goal for how many pages you want to finish that day. Finally, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Learning something new can be hard at first, but once you begin to master a new skill, you increase your chances of achieving flow when you persist at getting better.
In the next lecture, we will discuss a related concept to flow, mindfulness. See you tomorrow!
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