One of the most powerful state of minds we can experience is when we work on the peak of our abilities and everything works. Everything just flows in a state as its foremost explorer, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi (pronounced: Mihaj Tsjiksentmihaji), has described as “getting into flow”.
Flow can occur in all types of human activities that are based on knowledge, training and competence; playing tennis, performing music, skiing, playing video games, mountain climbing, poetry reading, doing research, embroidery, solving crossword puzzles, and countless more. But flow is not limited to leisure activities. It can also arise in the professional life when performing at the top; the pilot landing his aircraft in a strong side wind, the vascular surgeon operating, the diplomat who is in a crucial negotiating situation.
The flow feeling can also appear in spiritual or suggestive contexts such as meditation, yoga, prayer or ritual dance. Anyone can get into the flow state regardless of cultural background or education.
Knowledge and skill on the verge of our ability. Flow does not come by itself, but can only be achieved when you have become so good at something that you have imprinted the activity into the brain’s schemas and implicit memory. The young child can experience flow when, after ardent practicing, he finally masters how to ride a bicycle, the golfer the same when the swing is fully imprinted in the brain and she has enough knowledge and experience to compensate for wind and how the ball may bounce on different surfaces. The jazz soloist also needs to fully master his instrument before he can embark on an advanced improvisation.
In these situations, you don’t need to put any mental effort into the actual performing. Everything goes automatically. The pianist’s fingers move by themselves over the keyboard and the tennis player floats over the court without thinking, to end up in exactly the right position to be able to return the ball.
In these situations, flow occurs when you perform close, but always within, the limit of your ability. If it becomes too difficult, you become stressed and have to engage your strenuous active thinking in order to continue, and if it is too easy, it does not evoke any intense positive feelings. We learn through trial-and-error, and as long as we continue to fall when we learn how to cycle, we do not come in flow, but also not when cycling has become a routine.
Total presence and focused concentration in the present. The fact that the activity takes place “automatically” does not mean that everything is done in some sort of trance-like state. On the contrary! The one who is in a state of flow is totally present, with complete awareness of the smallest movements and everything that affects the activity. Nothing but the activity has any significance, and all external sensory inputs are filtered out, as is the brain’s conscious strenuous thinking. Instead, there is a high neural activity in those of the brain’s association areas that handle improvisation.
The focus is so strong on what one does that the self-awareness may disappear, and one can experience a feeling of being one with the activity. The jazz saxophonist feels like one with his instrument, the mountaineer one with the mountain and the chess player one with the board and the pieces.
The total presence in the moment also means that you can lose all the perception of time. Several hours may have passed, but you only perceive it as a short while, but it may also be the opposite. A ballerina interviewed by Csikszentmihályi described to him how a difficult movement that only takes a second was stretched out so that it felt like several minutes.
A sense of complete control. The flow experience requires constant feedback. You must constantly know exactly where you are. The mountaineer is constantly receiving feedback through the grip of the hands and feet on the rock, and the tennis player has a constant feedback in the contact with the ball. If you don’t know how you perform (e.g. on a written exam), then you cannot end up in flow.
The constant positive feedback means that the brain’s reward centre during the state of flow is activated with a low but constant excretion of dopamine. The conscious critical thinking is toned down, including the areas that govern self-criticism. The result is a feeling of great joy, and a feeling that everything works. All doubts disappear, as do all thoughts of dangers or later consequences.
During flow, therefore, you do not feel any fear of making mistakes, and at the moment there is neither stress nor worry. When one lives entirely in the present, there is no anxiety about the future either. This feeling may be paradoxical, as one acts on the border of his ability, where even small mistakes can have major consequences. The poker player or the stockbroker can in the state of the flow lose his critical sense and make big losses.
The positive almost intoxicating feeling of flow means that the actual experience becomes an end by itself. Although the elite athlete trained very hard for a championship, the thought of winning ceases to exist in the flow moment. The only thing that counts is the experience in the moment.
Flow during meditation. Flow can also arise from the opposite of the purposeful striving. In many meditation exercises, one enters a state of totally being in the present, without thinking of what has been before or what is to come. The flow feeling then comes from within, stemming from a transcendental experience of the boundaries of the self being dissolved, and one becomes an integrated part of something greater. Following the flow is an important part of the Eastern, especially the Buddhist and Taoist, spiritual paths, and is described as a liberating release – as opposed to attachment.
How to reach the state of flow. Flow is often experienced as an intoxicating positive feeling and the biggest of all kicks. This means that a person who has once experienced a real flow state can go a long way to experience the same feeling again. But often it is not enough that you repeat what you did at the time. The feeling cannot be commanded. Sometimes you can achieve it again by stretching your boundaries even more, but often it comes back only when you stop striving for it. Csikszentmihályi’s research, however, can provide some hints on how you more easily can consciously end up in flow.
- Set goals – Without goals, it is difficult to end up in flow, no matter what you do. The goal can be concrete as to learn how to play the guitar, or more vaguely to learn to enjoy poetry. But regardless of the activity, you have to acquire the skills and refine the abilities needed to cope with the task and enjoy the experience. It is important that you set the goals yourself. Your own set goals give you both the necessary intrinsic motivation, but also allows you to change and adjust the goals at any time.
- Let yourself be absorbed by the activity – To find the right deep commitment, you have to learn how to balance the task with your own resources. If you have set unrealistical expectations, then you will only be frustrated and disappointed, and if you set the goals too low, you will be bored. When there is a good match, try to enter the task with as open a mind as possible.
- Pay attention to what happens – The commitment that comes from focused concentration can only be maintained if you are aware of what is happening. If you, as a handball player, lose concentration for a moment, you can miss the opportunity for the winning goal, and if you are not fully aware of what you are doing and what is happening around you, you will not get the necessary feedback that you are on the right path. Your attentive focus should be on the outside world and not on yourself. Only then can you become one with the experience.
- Learn how to enjoy immediate experiences – The consequence of setting goals, being engrossed in the activity and being fully aware of what is happening around, makes you engage, and enjoy life as it is right now, even when objectively speaking it can be problematic.
This blog post was inspired by: Csikszentmihályi Mihály (2003). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Illustration: Pixabay.com – SocialButterflyMMG