The state of Flow
We have all been involved in activities where we have intense concentration and total commitment. During these activities we feel that we are very competent. We have complete control of the situation. Our skills operate to the fullest. The sense of time, as well as any negative emotions disappear. We are overwhelmed by a wonderful sense of transcendence. Whenever we have experience this situation, we are in a state of flow.
The phenomenon of flow, was first referenced by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990. He describes it as follows:
“the mental state of flow is being completely absorbed in an activity, for the activity itself and only. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought inevitably follows the preceding, as if playing Jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.
Our Growth, Stagnation and Flow zones
We all have to deal with various daily activities. Some of them are simple and easy. We have repeated them over many times, so they have become automatic. They do not pose any difficulty for us, so they often result in a loss of interest. Dealing with them may be comfortable, but we will soon find them boring. When we stay for long in our comfort zone, it will sooner or later transform into a stagnation zone.
There are some other tasks which are new to us, therefore unknown, or they may be familiar but tough. These tasks take us out of our comfort zone. Usually, they can cause discomfort, anxiety or fear. However, these are the ones that help us develop and grow. That’s where our growth zone is.
Finally, there are those tasks whose difficulty is almost matching our level of skill. When we are in this kind of activities, we are in heaven. We engage completely. Time disappears. We feel we are in absolute control. We can continue those activities for hours, without feeling hungry or thirsty.
Flow, therefore, is the mental state we experience, when we perform an activity, in which we are completely absorbed with a sense of active concentration and complete immersion, while enjoying the whole process.
Note that, it is not simply the balance between task difficulty and skill level which causes flow, but the balance in higher levels of difficulty and skill. In lower levels even when balance exists, we may be in a state of apathy or lack of interest.
Flow: the optimal experience
The Optimal experience – as Csikszentmihalyi named this mental state – usually occurs when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits, in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
“Optimal experience, when flow is realized, is thus something we make happen”.
Flow’s eight mental states
The flow model recognizes eight emotional mental states:
- Apathy – there is no interest, we are apathetic
- Boredom – we are bored and maybe run-down
- Relaxation – we have a feeling of calmness, but also lack of excitement
- Worry – if our focus is on worry, our problems grow and become harder
- Control – we have a feeling of dominance. Our activity is hard, but we are in command of the situation
- Anxiety – if we are anxious, we may freeze or shut down
- Arousal – in this state we approach our surroundings more attentively
- Flow – we focus completely on the task or activity, leading to the most successful results
Generally, people who masterwork life, art, sports or a hobby, all have flow experiences. From the outside, it may seem like they are doing the task with great ease. However, if you look at it from within, they have completely devoted themselves to what they are doing in order to achieve this level of mastery.
The Order of Mind
The best state of our inner experience happens when there is order in our minds. For this to happen, we must have realistic goals and our skill level has to match the challenge. The pursuit of a goal brings order to a person’s consciousness, as they have to concentrate on the task at hand and forget about everything else. The times when we struggle to overcome various challenges are the happiest of our life. Thus, the persons investing in consciously chosen goals can only grow into higher beings.
Characteristics of Flow
We all had flow experiences, therefore it is not difficult to recognize some of their characteristics:
- We have clear, specific, demanding but feasible goals
- Our concentration is in the present moment and in the actual activity, with no room in mind for any other information
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding
- There is a sense of tranquility
- Usually time passes much faster than expected
- We have immediate feedback on the progress
- We feel a balance between the task difficulty and our skill level. There is a feeling of assertiveness and self-confidence
- There is a sense of control over the activity, with no worries about failure
- We lose awareness of our physical needs
Theoretically, athletes and artists are more likely to experience flow. However, flow can be hiding in simple everyday activities, like housekeeping or reading a good book.
Electronic games are probably the most characteristic example, as they lead to flow by design. This is the main reason they cause strong addiction to teenagers and adults.
The following skills can help us achieve a state of flow:
- interest in life
- low ego
Read also the article: Step out of your comfort zone to pursue personal growth and development