This article is a (relatively) concise summary of the psychological phenomena of Flow, which I believe is immensely useful in dealing with the challenges of life.
[Eds. note: I have added some of my own conjectures to the theory, as indicated in blue font. I have considered publishing some of my own views on the subject, however I doubt that a scientific publisher would accept my contributions, since I do not have an academic foundation in psychology. If any of my readers have a clinical background in psychology or sociology, and wish to coauthor a publication using some of my ideas proposed below, then I trust that you will contact me through email.]
The following essay on Flow is broken down into the following sections.
- A Description of Flow
- Components of Flow
- Conditions for Flow
- An Analysis of the Conditions for Flow
- Challenges to Staying in Flow
- The Autotelic Personality
- Group Flow, or Crowd Psychology (Mob Mentality)
- Achieving a State of Flow
As a Christian studying the scientific theory of Flow, I have observed through my own experiences that the phenomena of Flow could be interpreted as an experience of worship or meditation. In my references to worship in this article, I wish to point out that I am making an inference to ‘the act of offering worship to God through one’s activities‘, and NOT the worship of the activity itself, nor the associated feelings. I also make references to the concept of eternity in this essay, and here, I define eternity holistically as ‘the state of not being affected nor influenced by the passage of time’, and NOT merely as being an infinite period of time, as many believe it to be.
1. A Description of Flow
In positive psychology, Flow, also colloquially referred to as ‘being in the Zone’, 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 of the process of performing the activity. In essence, Flow is characterized by a complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time. Although the concept of Flow has existed for thousands of years under other forms of awareness, Prof. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi was the first to address the concept of Flow within the scientific arena in the late 20th century. Since then, his theories have been widely recognized across a variety of fields, with an especially large following in occupational therapy.
Flow shares many characteristics with hyperfocus. However, hyperfocus is not always described in a positive light. Hyperfocus ‘captures’ a person, causing them to appear disorganized and scatterbrained. People who start several projects, but complete few are likely suffering from hyperfocus. Other examples include spending ‘too much’ time playing video games, or getting side-tracked and pleasurably absorbed by one aspect of a task to the point of wasting time, leading to the detriment of the overall enterprise. Prof. Csíkszentmihályi considered how some addictions can form out of an unbalanced emphasis on getting the ‘high’ out of one’s experiences. Flow, on the other hand, focuses on the positive aspects of one’s engagement in an activity.
2. Components of Flow
Over a period of two decades in his early career as a psychologist, Prof. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi formulated the central components of the Flow experience, as listed below.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment – [Challenge]
- Merging of action and awareness – [Contact / Involvement]
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness – [Worship]
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity – [Skill]
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered – viz. a transcendental experience – [Eternity]
- An experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as an autotelic experience – [Desire / Motivation]
These aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called Flow experience.
3. Conditions for Flow
A Flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes. Passive activities like taking a bath or even watching TV usually don’t elicit Flow experiences, as individuals have to actively exercise their will to enter a Flow state.
Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a Flow state:
- One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task. [Contact and Cognition]
- 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. [Contact]
- 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. [Cognition]
However, it was argued that the antecedent factors of Flow are interrelated, as a perceived balance between challenges and skills requires that one knows what he or she has to do (clear goals) and how successful he or she is in doing it (immediate feedback). Thus, a perceived fit of skills and task demands can be identified as the central precondition of Flow experiences.
Schaffer (2013) proposed 7 Flow conditions:
- Knowing what to do
- Knowing how to do it
- Knowing how well you are doing
- Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
- High perceived challenges
- High perceived skills
- Freedom from distractions
In 1997, Csíkszentmihályi published the graph above. [Eds. note: I like the color scheme of this diagram. The colors fit the specified moods, and it resembles the subtractive color wheel!] This graph depicts the relationship between the perceived challenges of a task and one’s perceived skills. This graph illustrates one further aspect of Flow: it is more likely to occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge (above the center point) and the individual has above-average skills (to the right of the center point). The center of this graph (where the sectors meet) represents one’s average levels of challenge and skill across all activities an individual performs during his or her daily life. The further from the center an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being (whether it is Flow, anxiety, boredom, relaxation, etc.).
4. An Analysis of the Conditions for Flow
Csikszentmihályi’s six components of Flow could be comprehensively categorized by their contribution to Flow, of which, all are necessary to achieve the Flow experience. Of these six, only one relates to challenge – intense and focused concentration on the present moment – and only one concerns skill – a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity. A third, the merging of action and awareness, could be characterized by being physically and cognitively involved in the activity, and depends on the environmental conditions surrounding the experience. I will introduce the term ‘Contact‘ to describe this quality. Perhaps the loss of self-consciousness may be somewhat dependent on, or attributable to the nature of the Contact. In such a case, the individuals’ physical comfort, safety and social situation would also affect Flow.
The three conditions for Flow described in the literature could also be classified as either Contact or Cognition. The seven Flow conditions proposed by Schaeffer mainly concern the conscious Cognition of one’s involvement in the task or situation, thus concerning Contact, with only number 7 (freedom from distraction) being a situationally enabling factor that also depends somewhat on the powers of concentration held by any particular individual. The variations and apparent inconsistencies found in other studies may also be related to the degrees of motivation held by the respective subjects.
The remaining three components of flow not yet discussed – a loss of reflective self-consciousness, distortion of temporal experience, and the intrinsic reward, viz. the Autotelic experience – are invariably linked to passion/desire/motivation.
Although the elements of skill and challenge have been thoroughly examined by Csikszentmihályi, the impact of Motivation has not been satisfactorily taken into account. It may be gathered that the element of intrinsic Motivation is weighty. Although Motivation is not specifically mentioned in the literature, it is also assumed to be a central element in Flow. The word Desire may be preferred to describe a specific type of Motivation, in the case where an intrinsic reward is imminent, because the word Desire is more closely attuned to intrinsic processes, whereas a Motivation could include intrinsic, as well as external rewards. Desire also captures or explains the essential characteristics of the Autotelic personality, including curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only.
Question to consider: Not all motivations are intrinsic desires! But does your motivation need to be intrinsic in order for you to achieve a state of Flow?
It might also be postulated that (at least in some cases) Flow is merely the exhilarating and transcendental “high” that one experiences while seeing one’s efforts produce the fruit of one’s desires, such that the process itself becomes an enjoyable pastime. [Eds. note: To answer this question, I would suggest that a study of neural chemistry (dopamine, etc.) of subjects experiencing Flow should be conducted to this end.]
Instead of considering the conditions for Flow to occur as being either vitally present or absent, it might be better to consider the varying degrees to which each of these Components are present in a given situation, such that when a certain combination of superposed Components are present, then Flow results. The specific combination and degree required to produce Flow would, of course, be unique for each individual. In other words, the Conditions for Flow must necessarily contain or enable essential Components of Flow, or otherwise, Flow could not precipitate.
Moreover, these Components and Conditions, with their various elements, are catalogued in Table 1. Note that the elements of ‘Worship‘ and ‘Eternity‘, delineated before, are subcategorized as Components of Passion/Desire/Motivation.
Table 1: A proposed component inventory for the state of Flow.
|Aspect of Flow||Component/Characteristic||Condition|
|Skill||Sense of control*||Mastery of task|
|Challenge||Intense, focused concentration||Ability; Confidence, Persistence vs. difficulty|
|Merging of action and awareness||Clear, immediate feedback
Power of negotiation or adjustment
|Cognition||Hope of achievement or gain
Realization of a desire
Making an impact
|Clear, concrete, achievable goals/milestones
Perception of the challenges and demands of the task vs. perception of one’s knowledge, skills and abilities
|Loss of reflective self-consciousness (Worship)
Transcendental, eternal experience (timelessness)
The Autotelic experience (intrinsically rewarding)
[Eds. note: To my knowledge, the items in blue have not been covered in the literature!]
5. Challenges to Staying In Flow
Several challenges that one might encounter in achieving a state of Flow have been discussed in literature. One major objective challenge is that the perceived balance between Challenges and Skills, which is supposed to be the central precondition of a Flow experience, is a highly specialized condition. Individuals with a low average level of Skills and a high average level of Challenges (or the other way round) do not necessarily experience a fit between Skills and Challenges. However, contrary to Flow theory, one study found that low Challenge situations which were surpassed by Skill, were associated with enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness, and not necessarily boredom. Although this does not exactly agree with the tenets of the theory, it does not in any way invalidate nor subtract from it either.
Some of the subjective challenges to staying in Flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety. Being in a state of apathy is characterized when Challenges are low and one’s Skill level is low, thereby producing a general lack of interest in the task at hand. Boredom is a slightly different state, in that it occurs when Challenges are low, but one’s Skill level exceeds those Challenges, causing one to seek higher Challenges. At the other extreme, doubts and fears arise when the Challenge level is moderately above one’s Skill level, leading one to worry over the outcome of the endeavor. Lastly, a state of anxiety occurs when Challenges are so high that they exceed one’s perceived Skill level, thereby causing one great uneasiness and distress. These deviations from Flow are shown in the three illustrations below.
In general, these states differ from being in a state of Flow, in that Flow occurs when the Challenges match one’s Skill level. However, when this condition is met, then one can continually accept gradual increases in the Challenge level, and slowly hone one’s Skills (abilities), and thereby move upwards through the Flow Zone, as shown in the illustrations below.
6. The Autotelic Personality
Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve Flow more often 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.
Up to now, there is not much research on the Autotelic personality, but results of the few studies that have been conducted suggest that indeed some people are more prone to experience Flow than others. One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) found that people with an Autotelic personality have a greater preference for “high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth” compared to those without an Autotelic personality. It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to enter the Flow state.
Experimental evidence shows that a balance between skills of the individual and demands of the task (compared to boredom and overload) only elicits Flow experiences in individuals characterized by an internal locus of control or a habitual action orientation (the application of Skill). Several correlational studies found that an individuals need for achievement (classified as Motivation) is a personal characteristic that fosters Flow experiences.
* [Eds. note: Could the need for control towards achieving a state of Flow be a primary Motivation for certain people popularly deemed to be ‘control freaks’? Secondly, is there any correlation between having an Autotelic personality, and being a ‘control freak’?]
7. Group Flow, or Crowd Psychology (Mob Mentality)
Csíkszentmihályi suggests several ways a group can work together so that each individual member achieves Flow. The characteristics of such a group include:
- Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables; thus individuals work while primarily standing and moving
- Playground design: Charts for information inputs, flow charts, project summary, craziness (here also craziness has a place), safe place (here all may say what is otherwise only thought), result wall, open topics
- Parallel, organized working conditions
- The group focuses on specific targets
- The advancement of projects already in existence (prototyping)
- Increasing efficiency through visual methods of communicating goals
- Using the differences among participants as opportunities, rather than allowing them to become an obstacle
Group Flow, when organized and regulated with specific goals and purposes, is known to be a powerhouse of productivity. (It’s also the substance of “mob mentality” and riots.) If we take this one step further, I surmise that a balance could be struck between the individual, and Group Flow, such that Flow could be achieved in a love relationship. In fact, I suspect this is the implicit goal of married life, and also the strength and staying power of a good marriage.
8. Achieving a State of Flow
The path to mastery, success, and happiness, is achieved by staying recurrently in the Flow Channel, as depicted in the figure below. In other words, make sure that one’s Challenge level is appropriately suited to one’s Skill level.
Changes in conditions leading to either achieving a state of Flow, or failing to achieve the same are discussed in the following arguments.
Case 1: A1 → A3
Urgency → Anxiety → Lose Hope To Reach Goal → Quit → Subliminal Avoidance
Question to consider: Could worry and anxiety be related to the fact that one has bitten off more than one can chew? If so, would a concerted effort towards revising one’s schedule, reorganizing priorities, cutting back on commitments, and taking more time to rest, prove to be beneficial towards the enablement of Flow in other areas of one’s life? Doing so should allow one to achieve more efficiency, mastery, and enjoyment in general.
Case 2: A3 → A4
By facing Challenges step by step, and in a timely manner, they are less likely to grow to the point of being urgent. (See study of Time Management.) Staying in a state of Flow can also be described as staying in the NOW (the present moment) at every moment. Whereas, dreaming about the goal, or worrying about the outcome, tends to draw one’s awareness away from the present.
Postulate: Assuming that one experiences happiness while in Flow, it is possible to stay happy consistently by staying in Flow, and not obsessively focusing on the goal or the object of desire. On the other hand, failing to achieve a state of Flow produces unhappiness, e.g. feelings of discontent, and frustration.
Corrollary: Young people who grow up in single parent homes, or abusive relationships with family members, find it more difficult to achieve a state of Flow during the formative adolescent years (i.e. Challenge Level >> Skill Level). This might be used to explain why such individuals usually become depressed, hopeless, and adopt poor habits and self destructive lifestyles.
Case 3: A1 → A2
Insufficient Challenge → Relaxation → Lose Motivation → Falls out of Contact/Involvement → General Disinterest
Compare this series of ‘Conditions‘ to the fabled example of The Tortoise and the Hare.
Question to consider: Could a lack of motivation or laziness be related to a state of relaxation, in which one’s skill level far surpasses the challenges at hand? If so, then accepting a new challenge might prove to be rewarding in many aspects.
Case 4: A2 → A4
Increasing the Challenge Level will tend to bring one into a state of Flow, thereby enhancing both one’s productivity and one’s enjoyment of life.
In achieving Flow in one’s own experience, I will offer the following postulates, such that one’s mindset needs to be adjusted accordingly in the concrete pursuit thereof. [Eds. note: I could not find verification or proof of these assumptions in the literature, however, I did not find contradictions either.]
- The state of being in Flow is a process, rather than a goal.
- Flow is an eternal experience, i.e. it is independent of, and unaffected by the passage of time.
- Flow is a worshipful experience (to those who can recognize it as such).
- At times, action is perhaps more important than prayer.
- The path to mastery and success is dependent on staying in the present moment at every moment. In otherwords, one must focus on the urgency of the NOW.
Ecclesiastes 10:10 (NIV)
”If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.”
Notice that this verse does not say, “skill may bring success”, but instead, “skill will bring success”. In light of this verse, the phenomenon of Csíkszentmihályi Flow could be seen as the enabling link between a worshipful approach to living, and success and happiness.
Worship → Flow → Skill → Success
If a person were to study and become aware of how one might achieve Csíkszentmihályi Flow, then an attempt to achieve the experience of Flow could be used to enhance one’s work, relationships with others, and I suspect it could even be used as a factor of attraction. So I urge my readers to study this and find out how you might do so.
In my own experiences, I have found that my studies moved from primarily being focused on the individual experience and the psychological foundations, to the habits, Skills and Challenges, to the realization of a Flow experience, and then finally to Group Flow.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperPerennial.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. The masterminds series. New York: Basic Books.
- Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International