Before lockdown one sunny Friday afternoon I hit the ball so cleanly and precisely I won the match. It was the tennis match of my life. A tough opponent; two leagues above me. But the matched seemed to be a blur. It flew by so quickly. I realised I had been in a state of flow.
Have you ever spent half an hour searching the internet which, as you find out afterwards, lasted three hours? Or opened a book shortly after breakfast and a little while later noticed that the room was getting darker?
Think of a moment in your life when you were so involved in what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to have disappeared. Your mind wasn’t wandering. You were totally focused and concentrated on that activity. And to such an extent that you were not even aware of yourself.
Time disappeared too...
Only when you came out of the experience, did you realise how much time had actually passed.
Most people can remember experiencing such a state. In fact, about 90% can easily recognise and associate it with one or more activities. Athletes call it: ‘being in the zone’, others a ‘heightened state of consciousness’.
Psychologists call these fully absorbing experiences flow states. It was discovered and named by a world-famous psychologist with the most unpronounceable surname I have ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Making Flow Happen: How to Enter the Flow State
The state of flow happens under very specific conditions. When we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.
If challenges exceed skills, one can become anxious. If skills exceed challenges, we usually become bored (like bright kids at school). Neither of these two cases result in flow.
Csikszentmihalyi came to the conclusion that flow is a universal experience, which has several important characteristics:
- Clarity of goals and immediate feedback on the progress. For example, in a competition you know what you’ve got to achieve. You know exactly how well you are doing, i.e. whether you are winning or losing.
- Complete concentration on what one is doing at the present moment, with no room in one’s mind for any other information. Mindfulness in action. Or as I like to call it; paying attention.
- Actions and awareness are merged. A guitar player merges with the instrument and becomes the music that he plays. The activity becomes almost automatic, and the involvement seems almost effortless (though far from being so in reality).
- Losing awareness of oneself or self-consciousness is also a common experience but, interestingly, after each flow experience the sense of self is strengthened and a person becomes more than he or she was before.
- Sense of control over what one is doing, with no worries about failure.
- Transformation of time. Usually, time passes much faster than expected. However, the reverse can also be true.
- Activities are intrinsically rewarding. This means they have an end in themselves (you do something because you want to), with any other end goal often being just an excuse.
What is also interesting in flow is the almost total absence of emotions during the actual process. One seems to be almost beyond experiencing emotions, most likely because the awareness of self is not present.
Flow is intrinsically motivating and enjoyable.
Activities that lead to a flow experience are called autotelic (from Greek: auto=self, telos=goal), because they are intrinsically motivated and enjoyable and have an end in themselves, rather than in some other end product.
Many activities are conducive to flow: sports, dancing, involvement in creative arts and other hobbies. In fact, most daily activities can lead to optimal experience (another name for flow), as long as the situation is sufficiently complex to activate the high challenge – high skill condition.
It stands to reason that flow states result from, at least as a starting point, getting to grips with what you are passionate about. I call this “singing my song.” When I am doing something that challenges me, something I love to do and I am skilled it; I find I have entered states of flow.
Flow can have a dark side too…
With flow having become such a popular notion and a desirable state, few pause to ask whether it is always good. In fact, the activities in which flow is found can be morally good or bad. Gambling, for example, especially games like bridge or poker, have all the conditions necessary for flow – they are challenging and require a high level of skill to stand any chance of winning.
Even activities that are morally good or neutral, like mountain climbing, chess or PlayStation, can become addictive, so much so that life without them can feel static, boring and meaningless.
A simple non-gambling game on your computer, like solitaire, which many people use to ‘switch off’ for a few minutes, can take over your life. This happens when, instead of being a choice, a flow-inducing activity becomes a necessity.
Addiction to flow can also lead to losing a larger perspective. A workaholic may lose himself in flow at work until 10 or 11 at night, forgetting dinner, his family or saying goodnight to the children.
The question regarding flow is not only how we can make it happen, but also how we can manage it: using it to enhance life, yet being able to let go when necessary.