The Psychology of Flow

8 Ways To Create Flow According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [+TED Talk]

The Psychology of Flow

Want to increase your well-being, creativity, and productivity?

If so, you might want to cultivate flow, a concept describing those moments when you’re completely absorbed in a challenging but doable task.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered one of the co-founders of positive psychology, was the first to identify and research flow. (If you’re not sure how to pronounce his name, here’s a phonetic guide: “Me high? Cheeks send me high!”)

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The experience of flow is universal and has been reported to occur across all classes, genders, ages, and cultures, and it can be experienced during many types of activities.

If you’ve ever heard someone describe a time when their performance excelled and they were “in the zone,” they were ly describing an experience of flow. Flow occurs when your skill level and the challenge at hand are equal.

Read on to learn more about what flow is and how to cultivate it.

Before you read on, we thought you might to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values and self-compassion and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students or employees.

You can download the free PDF here.

Who is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?

Csikszentmihalyi became a happiness researcher because of the adversity he faced growing up. He was a prisoner during World War II, and he witnessed the pain and suffering of the people around him during this time. As a result, he developed a curiosity about happiness and contentment.

Csikszentmihalyi observed that many people were unable to live a life of contentment after their jobs, homes, and security were lost during the war. After the war, he took an interest in art, philosophy, and religion as a way to answer the question, What creates a life worth living?

Eventually, he stumbled upon psychology while at a ski resort in Switzerland. He attended a lecture by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who spoke of the traumatized psyches of the European people after World War II.

Csikszentmihalyi was so intrigued that he started to read Jung’s work, which in turn led him to the United States to pursue an education in psychology. He wanted to study the causes of happiness.

Finding Out What Happiness Really Is

Csikszentmihalyi’s studies led him to conclude that happiness is an internal state of being, not an external one. His popular 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is the premise that happiness levels can be shifted by introducing flow.

Happiness is not a rigid, unchanging state, Csikszentmihalyi has argued. On the contrary, the manifestation of happiness takes a committed effort.

Beyond each person’s set point of happiness, there is a level of happiness over which each individual has some degree of control. Through research, Csikszentmihalyi began to understand that people were their most creative, productive, and happy when they are in a state of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed athletes, musicians, and artists because he wanted to know when they experienced optimal performance levels. He was also interested in finding out how they felt during these experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi developed the term “flow state” because many of the people he interviewed described their optimal states of performance as instances when their work simply flowed them without much effort.

He aimed to discover what piques creativity, especially in the workplace, and how creativity can lead to productivity. He determined that flow is not only essential to a productive employee, but it is imperative for a contented one as well.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, flow is “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” (1990).

Here’s a short video with a great explanation of flow:

Have you ever experienced flow? There are eight characteristics that this article delves into next.

The 8 Characteristics of Flow

Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

Who Experiences Flow?

Interestingly, the capacity to experience flow can differ from person to person. Studies suggest that those with autotelic personalities tend to experience more flow.

Such people tend to do things for their own sake rather than chasing some distant external goal.

This type of personality is distinguished by certain meta-skills such as high interest in life, persistence, and low self-centeredness.

In a recent study investigating associations between flow and the five personality traits, researchers found a negative correlation between flow and neuroticism and a positive correlation between flow and conscientiousness (Ullén et al., 2012).

It can be speculated that neurotic individuals are more prone to anxiety and self-criticism, which are conditions that can disrupt a flow state. In contrast, conscientious individuals are more ly to spend time mastering challenging tasks–an important piece of the flow experience, especially in the workplace.

What Happens in the Brain During Flow?

The state of flow has rarely been investigated from a neuropsychological perspective, but it’s becoming a focus of some researchers. According to Arne Dietrich, it has been associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (2003).

The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration, and working memory. It’s an area that’s responsible for our conscious and explicit state of mind.

However, in a state of flow, this area is believed to temporarily down-regulate in a process called transient hypofrontality. This temporary inactivation of the prefrontal area may trigger the feelings of distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of inner critic.

Moreover, the inhibition of the prefrontal lobe may enable the implicit mind to take over, allowing more brain areas to communicate freely and engage in a creative process (Dietrich, 2004). In other research, it’s been hypothesized that the flow state is related to the brain’s dopamine reward circuitry since curiosity is highly amplified during flow (Gruber, Gelman, & Ranganath, 2014).

How to Achieve Flow

It’s important to note that one can’t experience flow if distractions disrupt the experience (Nakamura et al., 2009). Thus, to experience this state, one has to stay away from the attention-robbers common in a modern fast-paced life. A first step would be to turn off your smartphone when seeking flow.

Also, the balance of perceived challenges and skills are important factors in flow (Nakamura et al., 2009). On the one hand, when a challenge is bigger than one’s level of skills, one becomes anxious and stressed. On the other hand, when the level of skill exceeds the size of the challenge, one becomes bored and distracted.

Since the experience of this state is just in the middle, the balance is essential.

“Inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand”

(Nakamura et al., 2009).

The experience of flow in everyday life is an important component of creativity and well-being. Indeed, it can be described as a key aspect of eudaimonia, or self-actualization, in an individual. Since it is intrinsically rewarding, the more you practice it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences, which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life.

Don’t Flow Alone

In one study, researchers from St. Bonaventure University asked students to participate in activities that would induce flow either in a team or by themselves (Walker, 2008).

Students rated flow to be more enjoyable when in a team rather than when they were alone. Students also found it more joyful if the team members were able to talk to one another. This finding was replicated even when skill level and challenge were equal (Walker, 2008).

A final study found that being in an interdependent group while experiencing flow is more enjoyable than one that is not (Walker, 2008). So, if you want to get more enjoyment flow, try engaging in activities together.

This echoes psychologist Christopher Peterson’s conclusion that positive psychology can be summed up in three words: “Other people matter.”

What is The Motivation Behind Your Flow State?

Most conscious actions require motivation, and there are two basic motivation types: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you love it. Csikszentmihalyi said the highest intrinsic motivation is a flow state where self-consciousness is lost, one surrenders completely to the moment, and time means nothing (2013). Think of a competent musician playing without thinking, or a surfer catching a great wave and riding it with joy.

Extrinsic motivation is when your motivation to succeed is controlled externally. That includes doing something to avoid getting into trouble or working hard to earn more money. That type of motivation is short-lived. A good kind of extrinsic motivation is when you are practicing to get better but you still need a tutor or teacher to validate your efforts.

Using Images To Boost Confidence And Flow

Psychologists Koehn et al. (2013) conducted research into different performance contexts and the production of the flow state, looking specifically at the way imagery and confidence levels interact to create flow.

Participants completed imagery and confidence measures before undertaking a field test. Measuring the performance of a tennis groundstroke, the researchers found a significant interaction between imagery and confidence (Koehn et al., 2013).

Koehn and colleagues were able to demonstrate positive associations between imagery, confidence and the inducement of a flow state, which in turn predicts increased performance (2013). In essence, the conduction of a flow state is seen to significantly increase performance levels in a given external task (Koehn et al., 2013).

TED Talk On Flow: The Secret To Happiness

We leave you with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 2004 TED Talk, which has more than 5 million views (and counting).

We’d love to hear from you. How often do you experience flow, and what type of activities lead to this experience?

Drop us a comment below or continue reading about the kind of activities that induce flow here.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching or workplace.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of happiness: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. London, UK: Rider.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Flow, the secret to happiness [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Random House.
  • Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12(2), 231-256.
  • Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 13(4), 746-761.
  • Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.
  • Koehn, S., Morris, T., & Watt, A. P. (2013). Flow state in self-paced and externally-paced performance contexts: An examination of the flow model. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 14(6), 787-795.
  • Lickerman, A. (21 April 2013). How to reset your happiness set point: The surprising truth about what science says makes us happier in the long term. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201304/how-reset-your-happiness-set-point.
  • Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206.
  • Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., … & Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(2), 167-172.
  • Walker, C. J. (2010) Experiencing flow: Is doing it together better than doing it alone? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(1), 5-11.

Источник: https://positivepsychology.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-father-of-flow/

Living in Flow: What is it and How to Enter the Flow State?

The Psychology of Flow
Published: 2008-11-07

Have you ever spent half an hour searching the internet which, as you find out afterwards, lasted three hours? Or opened a book shortly after breakfast and a little while later noticed that the room was getting darker?

Think of a moment in your life when you were so involved in what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to have disappeared. Your mind wasn’t wandering; you were totally focused and concentrated on that activity, to such an extent that you were not even aware of yourself.

Time disappeared too.

Only when you came the experience, did you realise how much time had actually passed (usually much more than you anticipated, although sometimes it could be less).

Most people can remember experiencing such a state. In fact, about 90% can easily recognise and associate it with one or more activities. Athletes call it:

Martin Seligman

‘being in the zone’, others a ‘heightened state of consciousness’.

Psychology and Flow

Psychologists call these fully absorbing experiences flow states, which were discovered and named by a world-famous psychologist with the most unpronounceable surname I have ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

His celebrated book Flow: The psychology of happiness is one of the best examples of a marriage between non-reductionist scientific and deep thinking, within the accessible self-help genre. It became an instant best-seller, making its way to the top self-help classics.

It is possible that if it wasn’t for the enormous popularity of Flow and for Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi meeting accidentally in Hawaii and becoming friends, the positive psychology movement might have never happened.

Making Flow Happen: How to Enter the Flow State

The state of flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.

If challenges exceed skills, one can become anxious. If skills exceed challenges, we usually become bored ( bright kids at school). Neither of these two cases result in flow.

Csikszentmihalyi investigated the phenomenon of flow by interviewing thousands of people from many different walks of life – chess players, mountain climbers, tennis players, ballet dancers, surgeons, etc. He came to the conclusion that flow is a universal experience, which has several important characteristics:

  • Clarity of goals and immediate feedback on the progress. For example, in a competition you know what you’ve got to achieve and you know exactly how well you are doing, i.e. whether you are winning or losing.
  • Complete concentration on what one is doing at the present moment, with no room in one’s mind for any other information.
  • Actions and awareness are merged. A guitar player merges with the instrument and becomes the music that he plays. The activity becomes almost automatic, and the involvement seems almost effortless (though far from being so in reality).
  • Losing awareness of oneself or self-consciousness is also a common experience but, interestingly, after each flow experience the sense of self is strengthened and a person becomes more than he or she was before.
  • Sense of control over what one is doing, with no worries about failure.
  • Transformation of time. Usually, time passes much faster than expected. However, the reverse can also be true.
  • Activities are intrinsically rewarding. This means they have an end in themselves (you do something because you want to), with any other end goal often being just an excuse.

What is also interesting in flow is the almost total absence of emotions during the actual process. One seems to be almost beyond experiencing emotions, most ly because the awareness of self is not present.

One philosopher describes his own experience of flow:

‘A good discussion often brings a sense of flow. I am not aware of myself, the world around, or the passage of time. I get totally involved in the conversation. Everything goes smoothly. It is a challenging but not a rough ride. Yet, with all truly fulfilling experiences, you know that you were in flow, not while you were there, but because of missing it after.’

Activities that lead to a flow experience are called autotelic (from Greek: auto=self, telos=goal), because they are intrinsically motivated and enjoyable and have an end in themselves, rather than in some other end product.

Many activities are conducive to flow: sports, dancing, involvement in creative arts and other hobbies, sex, socialising, studying, reading and, very often, working. In fact, most daily activities can lead to optimal experience (another name for flow), as long as the situation is sufficiently complex to activate the high challenge – high skill condition.

Activities in which flow is a rare occurrence include: housework, idling and resting. Also, in the vast majority of cultures, people don’t associate watching TV with optimal experience.

Although optimal experience is described in the same way across countries, some of the flow-conducive activities vary, because of the cultural and circumstantial differences.

Thus Roma (Gypsy) people very often find flow in raising children or grandchildren, which is not a common pattern elsewhere.

Leisure activities, which are frequently associated with optimal experience, are not associated with it in Iran.

People in traditional societies find flow in housework, even though it rarely happens in Europe.

Whilst TV is generally counterproductive for flow, blind people quote media (including television ‘watching’) as their most flow-related activity. This is not surprising.

TV is not designed for blind people, so ‘watching’ TV is for them associated with a challenge – having to build mental images of the characters in the absence of being able to see them.

Nepalese people, too, associate the media with optimal experience. Not having a TV at home makes watching it a rather rare (and possibly challenging) opportunity.

These research findings mean it is not possible to say for certain which activities are definitely flow-related and which are not. What for one person is a piece of cake can be a challenge for another.

The opportunities for optimal experience rely, therefore, on our subjective perception.

Saying that, frequent choice of activities that are non-conducive to flow remains a problem for the vast majority of the Western population. Remember, it is not just the balance between challenge and skills that is required for flow, both have to be stretched. In television watching, for example, the low skill matches the low challenge, which usually results in apathy.

At work, on the other hand, we have the high-skill, high-challenge situations more often than during leisure. Yet so often we would rather do something else than work. Given a choice between TV and work, why would we rather choose the former over the latter? Csikszentmihalyi explains this by distinguishing between enjoyment and pleasures.

Flow may be a state of ultimate enjoyment, but it requires effort and work, at least to begin with. The pleasures do not, they are passive. It’s far too easy to switch the TV on, and it is the effortlessness that ‘sells’ this mildly pleasurable activity to us.

In addition to autotelic activities, Csikszentmihalyi talks of autotelic personality – a person who ‘generally does things for their own sake rather than in order to achieve some later external goal’. These people develop skills that help them get into the flow state frequently, skills curiosity, interest in life, persistence and low self-centredness.

Dangers of Flow

With flow having become such a popular notion and a desirable state, few pause to ask whether it is always good. In fact, the activities in which flow is found can be morally good or bad. Gambling, for example, especially games bridge or poker, has all the conditions necessary for flow – they are challenging and require a high level of skill to stand any chance of winning.

Even activities that are morally good or neutral, mountain climbing, chess or Playstation, can become addictive, so much so that life without them can feel static, boring and meaningless.

A simple non-gambling game on your computer, solitaire, which many people use to ‘switch off’ for a few minutes, can take over your life.

This happens when, instead of being a choice, a flow-inducing activity becomes a necessity.

Csikszentmihalyi himself is very much aware of the dangers of flow. He writes:

‘…enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative effect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life’.

Addiction to flow can also lead to losing a larger perspective. A workaholic manager may lose himself in flow at work until 10 or 11 at night, forgetting dinner, his family or saying goodnight to the children.

Csikszentmihalyi also adds:

‘The flow experience, everything else, is not “good” in an absolute sense.

It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strengths and complexity of the self.

But whether the consequence of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria’.

The question regarding flow is not only how we can make it happen, but also how we can manage it: using it to enhance life, yet being able to let go when necessary.

Other Optimal Experiences

Flow is not the only optimal experience that we know of. A humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, (1908-1970) coined the term peak experience to describe intensely joyous and exciting moments in the lives of every individual. In these moments, we feel more whole, integrated, aware of ourselves and deeply happy.

We have a sense of transcendence, awe, unity and meaningfulness in life. Often these experiences have a spiritual quality about them. The peak moments are often inspired by intense occurrences – moments of love, exposure to great art or music, the overwhelming beauty of nature or even tragic events.

Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi with regard to flow, believed that all individuals are capable of peak experiences, but those who achieved self-actualisation are more ly to have them. Although many characteristics are shared (e.g.

absorption, spontaneity, loss of time), peak experience differs from flow in the presence (rather than loss) of the sense of self, the rarity of its occurrence and having almost a mystical quality about it.

Whilst flow experiences are encouraged, Maslow cautioned against seeking peak experiences for their own sake.

We have a long way to go in learning about the optimal states of human existence.

Little is known about microflow activities (such as doodling), shared, rather than individualised, flow, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts ( in a musical jam session) or a plateau experience (which is a continuous peak experience). Positive psychology might be potentially a vehicle for exploring the complexity of these and other positive human experiences.

Источник: http://positivepsychology.org.uk/living-in-flow/

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