Do you remember that time when you were completely immersed in what you were doing?
You lost your perception of time, sucked in for long hours, deeply focused, and joyous at the same time.
I bet you have experienced a flow state at least once in your life. It could have happened when you were doing intense intellectual work, painting, dancing, or doing sports. The term flow is so ubiquitous in modern positive psychology that it hardly needs to be introduced. It’s also highly sought after. Taking your brain to the next level, combining joy and supreme productivity. Who wouldn’t want that?
Theory of joy
Table of Contents
Traditional psychology used to be focused mainly on deviations and mental sickness, tackling the negative side of the human psyche. Countering this tendency, the proponents of the so-called “positive psychology” decided to explore the untouched terrain of the positive states, to crack open the mystery of happiness and wellbeing. This was just the intention of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a scientist who first coined the term flow. He was inspired by an account of a music composer, who claimed that he entered a state of trance while producing a new piece of music.
“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the music just flows out of itself.” (Csikszentmihalyi)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the podium during the 2018 Western Positive Psychology Association conference in Claremont. (Image source: https://www.cgu.edu/news/2021/10/passings-mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-the-father-of-flow-1934-2021/)
Mihaly’s further research revealed that flow is experienced not only by musicians. It is regularly reported by artists, writers, or sportsmen. No matter the area of expertise, flow experiences share certain characteristics. They involve complete concentration on the task, to the extent of losing self-awareness. In a state of flow, you don’t think of yourself doing the task but rather feel as if you were merged with your activity. Because parts of your prefrontal brain are shutting down, you may experience the time passing very slow, or very fast. Flow is also intrinsically rewarding. Regardless of how productive you may be while in flow, it’s just really pleasant to experience this state.
Finding the sweet spot
How to reach flow? It’s all about the right mix of challenge and skill. Have a look at this chart, prepared by Csikszentmihalyi:
As you can see, the flow may happen only in a situation when you are both skilled in what you are doing, and you are presented with enough challenge. If the task is not demanding, it gets boring. If you don’t have enough mastery in what you’re doing, you may feel anxious or sad, rather than experience flow.
Let’s use an example of a musician. Imagine Bob, a skilled saxophone player. His friends invited him to play at their wedding, and being the nice guy that he is, he just couldn’t say no. At the wedding he is asked to play simple songs, the evergreens everyone knows how to sing and dance to. The atmosphere is cheerful and Bob enjoys seeing his friends happy, but he is far from getting into flow while playing. The songs are just too simple and boring. There is no thrill in playing them. Bob is looking forward to the first chance to put down his instrument and head to the open bar.
Now let’s imagine Bob going to a jam session in a local blues club. As soon as all the musicians gather the improvisation begins. The drummer starts by giving the band a simple rhythm. Other instruments join in one by one and the musical piece gets more and more complicated. The musicians drift away in a long musical conversation, playing around with notes and themes, improvising a piece never written before and never previously played. This level of mastery is possible only thanks to a group of skilled musicians joining together in their love for blues. Bob tunes in and drops out with the others, becoming immersed in creative bliss. Now, this is flow!
For Bob, the conditions of the jam session were perfect for getting into flow. The challenge of play and improvisation was high, but his musical education prepared him well for the task. He was able to concentrate deeply on the music, play in harmony with other musicians, and even add a touch of personal mastery to the piece.
How to get into flow?
The secret to flow lies in finding the sweet spot between the skills and challenge. But there is one other necessary condition: concentration. To lose yourself in what you’re doing, you need immense focus.
If you think about it, most of your everyday activities suffer from problems with concentration. Your attention is being constantly dragged in different directions. Smartphones, email notifications, and constant access to the internet make it hard to sustain attention on one task for a longer time.
Csikszentmihalyi considers concentration to be the necessary ingredient in reaching flow. He points out that the techniques of training concentration to reach peak experiences have been used for thousands of years.
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. (Csikszentmihalyi)
In his view, yoga and meditation were used to achieve states very similar to flow. Through deliberately training the control over their attention, Yogis were able to reach blissful states in their practice.
Another way to increase concentration is using brain stimulation devices. When you’re mentally active and focused, your brain emits beta waves. This bandwidth can be strengthened with non-invasive stimulation using magnetic coils. Just as meditation can help you train concentration in the long term, using a brain stimulation device like NeoRhythm can give an immediate boost to your focus, making it easier to get into flow.
The first step to improving the quality of life is to pay close attention to what we do every day (Csikszentmihalyi).
As positive psychology aims to discover what makes people happy, for Csikszentmihalyi the answer is simple: finding flow. After years of research, he concludes that the best moments in people’s lives are not when they are passive and relaxed, but the ones when their minds are pushed to their limits to achieve something difficult, but worthwhile. True happiness cannot be achieved by indulging in simple pleasures. The key is to passionately enjoy what you do every day – to which the feeling of flow is crucial.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994
- Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206.
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