Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time or even your surroundings?
If you have, and most of us have even if not realizing it, you’ve been in a state called “flow”. Flow is a state of consciousness where we experience a task so deeply that it truly becomes enjoyable and satisfying. It is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
The concept was named by a psychologist of Hungarian origin Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi who devoted his professional life to researching the origins and effects of this special state of mind. He defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Cskikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.4) He identifies a number of different elements involved in achieving flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way.
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills.
- Action and awareness are merged.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
- There is no worry of failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- The sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes an end in itself.
People who have developed their flow to such an extent that they are able to translate every potential threat into an enjoyable challenge, and thereby maintain an inner tranquility as a continuous state of mind. He calls such a person an “autotelic self,” someone who “is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time.” Now one might think that such a state is reserved for the few great human beings such as Socrates, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama; but in fact, the examples that Csikszentmihalyi gives are of ordinary people who are able to find delight in ordinary daily tasks.
Csikszentmihalyi points to five ways through which one is able to cultivate one’s self into an autotelic person:
- Setting goals that have clear and immediate feedback;
- Becoming immersed in the particular activity;
- Paying attention to what is happening in the moment;
- Learning to enjoy immediate experience;
- Proportioning one’s skills to the challenge at hand;
Cziksentmihalyi describes the methodology that he and his team of researchers used to obtain the data about people experiencing (or not) a flow state of mind:
“In our studies, we represent the everyday life of people in [this] simple scheme. And we can measure this very precisely, actually, because we give people electronic pagers that go off 10 times a day, and whenever they go off you say what you’re doing, how you feel, where you are, what you’re thinking about. And two things that we measure is the amount of challenge people experience at that moment and the amount of skill that they feel they have at that moment. So for each person we can establish an average, which is the center of the diagram. That would be your mean level of challenge and skill, which will be different from that of anybody else. But you have a kind of a set point there, which would be in the middle.
If we know what that set point is, we can predict fairly accurately when you will be in flow, and it will be when your challenges are higher than average and skills are higher than average. And you may be doing things very differently from other people, but for everyone that flow channel, that area there, will be when you are doing what you really like to do — play the piano, be with your best friend, perhaps work, if work is what provides flow for you.”
While in flow, nearly all of the brain’s available inputs are devoted to one activity. This is why the perception of time changes, discomfort goes unnoticed, and stray negative thoughts don’t enter the mind. The brain is too busy focusing on one thing to keep track of all those other things. We see here an obvious link between flow and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or the kind of attention involved in meditation and yoga. The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.
Over the centuries various philosophies pointed out one key notion: that the way to happiness lies not mindfulness hedonism but in mindful challenge, not in having unlimited opportunities but in focused possibilities.
Flow has been experienced throughout history and across cultures, especially in eastern philosophy. The teachings of Buddhism and of Taoism speak of a state of mind known as the “action of inaction” or “doing without doing” (wu wei in Taoism) that greatly resembles the idea of flow. Also, Hindu texts on Advaita philosophy refer to a similar state.
With flow, as Cziksentmihalyi points out, ”Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals.”
In conclusion, whether you call it “flow”, “wu wei”, “the zone” or by some other word is of less importance. It can be achieved by anyone and anywhere, in almost any activity one chooses to pursue.