Flow is a concept that was first conceived of by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. It is characterized by single-minded immersion in an activity. It has been suggested that perhaps flow is the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. Sometimes when people are referring to “flow” they call it being in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or keeping your head in the game. Flow is an amazing experience. It is feeling spontaneous joy. Almost rapture. It is being effortlessly in such a focused and yet relaxed state that nothing else matters. Not even one’s self or emotions.
I have experienced flow. Not for many years. I am hoping that I will experience it again. I can remember being in the flow state while painting and being so focused on discovering new colours and new ways that the colours could be combined to work with one another that I lost track of time and over 12 hours passed. Another time I was dancing under the stars in a courtyard and reggae was playing. I closed my eyes and focused on the music hitting my breast bone and let go to synchronize my small movements in my body to the tempo of the music. I was pulled out of flow by a friend who commented that I appeared to be in a state of rapture. I can remember being in flow while drawing, writing, doing watercolours, and making collage. Sometimes reading, studying, and pursuing knowledge will do this as well. There is a lightening that happens with flow.
Ten Factors accompany the experience of flow according to Csikszentmihalyi. They are as follows:
1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
4. Distorted sense of time, one’s 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, so there is an effortlessness of action.
9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action and awareness merging.
The things that will prevent flow from happening are things like depression, stress, and anxiety. Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality. One cannot force a flow experience to happen but there are three conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state:
1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
Flow can enhance learning, performing musically or in other arts, creating art, hacking, writing code, writing, doing science, or in athletic performance. Group flow where an entire group of people pulls together to create flow in a kind of brainstorming session is possible. Csikszentmihalyi has proposed that it might be possible to create playgrounds to elicit the flow phenomena more frequently and Montessori education has been studied and found to allow children to experience flow more frequently.
Flow is akin to spiritual states described in such world religions as Buddhism, HInduism, and Taoism. Flow is an innately positive experience. It is a feeling of bliss. It is also a positive force because it allows for optimal performance and skill development.
Flow has been documented and shown to correlate with performance enhancement. Researchers have found that achieving a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity. Flow also encourages the further development of skills and personal growth. When one is in a flow state, one is working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one’s skills and creates greater confidence. It becomes an upward cycle where the skills are expanded, performance improved, there is greater confidence, and greater willingness to attempt more difficult challenges and strive for more. It is self rewarding.