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Flow: The Optimal State for a Human Being


FlowThe Flow State has been described by the first researcher to study it in depth, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as the optimal state for a human being.

When we are in a flow state, there’s nothing more we want, than to continue doing what we are doing, to completion. So, flow states are great for getting things done.

What is Flow?

Have you ever been so caught up in something you were doing that nothing else seemed to matter? In fact, you may not even have been aware of anything else, like the temperature being too cold, or being hungry, or even needing the loo?

Characteristics of Flow

The characteristics of flow states are readily familiar to most of us:

  • Intense concentration, which is focused entirely on what you are doing
  • No thought for past or future: only for the present moment
  • Not thinking about yourself: only about what you are doing
  • Yet feeling totally in control of your actions
  • Little awareness of passing time, so that hours can pass, that seem like only minutes
  • Feeling a great sense of satisfaction from what you are doing
  • A solid confidence in your abilities
  • But, at the same time, knowing that you are working near the edge of them, so you need to stay alert

How it Feels to be in a Flow State

I’m sure you have experienced flow at some time. It feels good. Typically, you’ll feel some or all of these:

  • Clarity about what you need to do and how you are doing – sometimes also how to do it, though figuring out next steps and problem-solving can also induce flow states
  • But certainly, a confidence that you can do what you have set out to do
  • Being completely absorbed by what you are doing
  • Complete contentment – sometimes people even describe it as ‘bliss’ or even ‘ecstasy’
  • Unarticulated determination to continue – this is an inner motivation towards your task

What you don’t feel, are:

  • Anxiety
  • Tedium and time dragging
  • A sense that what you are doing is pointless

This all sounds pretty good…

Flow states can make your life more rewarding. And they can transform mundane tasks into absorbing – even pleasurable – activity.

But there are dangers too. You can get so caught up in your flow state activity that you neglect other responsibilities or miss appointments. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi also warns that they can become addictive. Whether this is a physiological addiction, I don’t know. But, craving flow states makes other activities that are necessary for our daily life seem too dull and unrewarding.

The Term ‘Flow State’

The phrase ‘in the flow’ certainly seems to have been around for as long as I can remember. And the concept goes back to the ancients, particularly the Buddhists and Stoics.

But its use in psychology and the specific terminology of ‘flow states’ tracks back to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research in the 1970s. Several people he interviewed described the experiences we now call flow states as being carried along by a flow of water.

How to Get into a Flow State

Csikszentmihalyi identifies three conditions that are necessary for entering into a flow state. Consider a task that you need to do;

  1. First, you must be absolutely clear what the task is and what outcome you are seeking. I’d also argue that it is better still if it is – to you – a worthwhile task.
  2. Second, as you work on the task, you need to constantly gain feedback on how you are progressing against your objective, and the quality of the work you are doing – your performance
  3. Finally, the task has to stretch you. If it is too easy, you soon have spare mental capacity. Your mind wanders and you won’t be focused on the task: you’ll get bored. On the other hand, if the task is too difficult for you, you will be anxious about your performance and that anxiety will prevent you from focusing fully.

Challenge and Skill

Picking up on this last point, Csikszentmihalyi presents a useful diagram in his book. I have a copy of the first edition, from which I have adapted the diagram. But a new edition is available now (US|UK).

Challenge, Skill, and Flow States

The Three Conditions at work (or play)

A good demonstration of the power of flow states comes from the adoption of these ideas by the gaming industry. If flow states are really addictive, then a game designer would want to harness this to keep players engrossed in their product. And so they do:

  1. Games start off with a clear objective: finding things, beating things, collecting things, killing things…
  2. You get clear feedback when you do these things, in the form of points, sounds, visual effects, even haptic feedback
  3. When you start to master the game (and are therefore in danger of getting bored and stopping), what happens? The game tells you that you have completed a level and re-starts on a new level with new challenges that require greater skill level.

If flow states are truly addictive, then how does selling games differ, morally, from selling drugs?

What is Your experience of Flow?

I’ll leave you to ponder that philosophical conundrum. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Also, what are your experiences, ideas, and questions about Flow? Please leave them in the comments below.

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