What Is Flow Anyway?

You know that feeling when you’re so fully immersed in an activity — an engrossing conversation, say, or a riveting mystery novel, a challenging game of tennis — that you lose track of time, your self-consciousness falls away and life seems effortless?

That’s being in the flow.

It’s a phenomenon that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor and former chairman of the University of Chicago Department of Psychology, has spent over 20 years researching and views as the key to enhancing the quality of life and, ultimately, to finding happiness

Extreme Life Satisfaction

In his book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi (CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) notes there are two main strategies for improving the quality of life: 1) try to make external conditions match our goals; or 2) change how we experience external conditions to make them better fit our goals.

If you’ve ever tried to board a train after the doors have closed, you know how frustrating any attempt to change external conditions is likely to be. The second option, however, because it lies wholly within our control and implies the possibility of creating a ‘flow’ experience, promises an infinitely more reliable way to experience greater life satisfaction.

Components of Flow

Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi sees it, has eight identifiable components

  1. Clear goals –  with discernable expectations and rules for achieving them
  2. Concentrating and focusing –  the opportunity to focus on a limited field of attention and to delve deeply into an activity.
  3. Lack of self-consciousness –  we are too involved in what we are doing to care about protecting the ego
  4. Distorted sense of time –  our subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate    feedback –  successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge –  the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, resulting in an effortlessness of action.

By these criteria, activities such as sports and music inspire flow states more naturally than others. Not all eight components, however, are required in order to experience flow and even mundane tasks can be designed to create a sense of focus and quiet accomplishment. The trick is to restructure those activities that are not intrinsically rewarding to create conditions conducive to flow – by creating goals and rules, for example

Make Like A Kid

Children intuitively understand this notion. Ferdinand, my three-year-old nephew, becomes completely absorbed with the simplest of tasks, trotting back and forth across the room with admirable concentration as he fills up a wagon with green Legos and blocks. We can take the same approach throughout the day, calibrating a balance between the challenge of our tasks – neither too easy nor too difficult – and our skill. Cooking dinner? See how quickly and evenly you can chop the carrots, how efficiently you can fill the racks in loading the dishwasher.

Again, it’s less the absolute nature of the tasks than the surrounding context, i.e. how we choose to experience external conditions . For you, chopping carrots is a chore, for the newly hired sous-chef in his first five-star restaurant gig, it’s a chance to shine. (Go here, for specific ideas on how to get into the flow at work.)

That feeling of being totally immersed in what you are doing needn’t be reserved for skiing moguls or singing karaoke. By consciously creating opportunities to get in the flow, we can infuse our daily lives with a heightened sense of engagement, achievement and satisfaction – in short, a higher quality of life.

Here is Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk.



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