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Finding Flow: A Journey to the Zone

Flow Theory is a psychological model, and this intriguing topic is also known as “optimal experience”. With the rise of ‘mindfulness’ and discussions on the various ways one could improve their life, this may prove helpful to have in your Life Toolbox.

In the 1970s, Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of “flow” and extensively studied and wrote about it. Described as a state of “being in the zone” or “peak performance”, flow is a state of mind characterised by complete absorption “in an activity with a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975/1985).

After conducting considerable research using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) into flow experience and its benefits, Csikszentmihalyi concluded that flow is a state of optimal experience, where one is fully engaged in an activity and that this state of mind is associated with increased well-being and happiness (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1998).

Finding activities that match our skill level and challenge us just enough to be engaging and satisfying is the key to achieving flow, which individuals can experience in sports, music, art, work, and even everyday activities (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).

There are some distinctions to be made regarding Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow and how this differs from what is generally known as ‘hyperfocus’. Flow refers to the feeling and state of mind experienced when one fully engages in an activity, with a sense of energised focus, full participation, and enjoyment in the process.

An individual with hyperfocus can become intensely absorbed in an activity for extended periods, a characteristic often linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, this concentration level may have negative consequences such as procrastination, neglect of other responsibilities, or difficulty disengaging from the task.

While both flow and hyperfocus involve an intense focus on a task, the critical difference is that flow is a positive and productive state, while hyperfocus can be unproductive if not managed well. However, people with ADHD can also experience flow, and it is beneficial for them to learn how to manage both flow and hyperfocus in a way that maximises the positive effects and minimises the negative consequences to optimise the beneficial experiences.

An example is an artist who is completely absorbed in painting a landscape. They focus on the task at hand, and time flies by. They are not thinking about anything else and are entirely in the moment, feeling energised and fulfilled by the process of creating their art. Alternatively, a musician playing a concert is wholly absorbed in the music and perfectly harmonised with the rest of the band. They are not thinking about anything else, and they are entirely in the moment, feeling energised and fulfilled by the process of performing.

In both examples, the individuals fully engage in the activity, and the experience is enjoyable and satisfying. They are not thinking about anything else or aware of the passage of time, and when the activity finishes, they feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Additionally, they are not procrastinating or neglecting other responsibilities.

In a 2004 TED Talk titled ‘”Flow, the secret to happiness”, Csikszentmihaly presents a slide “How does it feel to be in flow?”

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy – I’ve been outside everyday reality.
  3. Greater inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing.
  4. Knowing the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  6. Timelessness –thoroughly focused on the present, our seem to pass by in minutes.
  7. Intrinsic motivation –whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
(Csikszentmihalyi, 2004, 13:50)

Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” theory is a critical and influential idea that has helped shape our understanding of motivation, engagement, and productivity. This theory emphasises the importance of finding challenging and rewarding activities to maximise our potential. By understanding the concept of flow, we can gain insight into creating meaningful experiences with lasting impact, and applying this theory to our lives can help construct a life full of joy and flow.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology. Springer Netherlands. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.24.2.225

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1985). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. (Original work published 1975)

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Flow, the secret to happiness. Ted.com; TED Talks. https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness

Csikszentmihalyi, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. E. (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness.Cambridge University Press.