How can you steer your mind into a zone of blissful happiness? Short answer: By diving into a state of “flow.”
Entering the flow state at will is the secret known to scientists, musicians, artists, athletes, and painters.
They enter and stay in this zone for hours and days without feeling tired or hungry or sleepy or bored. In this state, which we too can also learn to achieve, they produce their best work.
What Is The Meaning of Flow
Flow means a state of intense joy that keeps a person in the present moment, resulting in a heightened state of creativity, productivity, and satisfaction. The brain is in a zone between conscious and subconscious when in the “flow” state. This sets up the brain to function optimally, allowing creative and novel ideas to emerge at speed.
Here is the best definition of flow:
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.— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Father of “Flow”
You can learn their method of creating a calm mind that stays immersed in an intense state of authentic happiness called “flow” or “zone.”
Did it happen to you that you’ve been so totally immersed in a task that you forgot the outside world?
You might have been doing something you have a deep love for, like writing an article or reading a book. And by the time you “woke up,” hours had passed unnoticed.
All your focus was on the what and how of your work, happening then and there. In fact, you were so absorbed that you didn’t realize how the hours totally passed you by and the morning turned into an evening.
If you ever had such an experience, then you already know what is flow.
In flow, there is a smooth merger of fast decisions and creative insights. This is the state of the best productivity with the least exertion.
According to EEG studies, the flow state is characterized by increased theta waves in the frontal areas and moderate alpha waves in the frontal and central areas of the brain (EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic Task, 2018).
Flow Theory In Psychology
Csikszentmihalyi often describes flow as an autotelic experience.
An autotelic person is one who generally does a thing for its own sake, in the “here and now”, rather than for some long-term goals.
Mihaly describes people who are autotelic as: “…those who need few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding.”
An autotelic experience refers to an activity that is inherently pleasant, enjoyable, and motivating.
Research by Csikszentmihalyi showed a flow state needs at least two key things to exist together: goals and feedback.
- Goal: When people take on challenges that they believe are just at the right level for their expertise, they enter a flow state. The challenge should not be too difficult so that people become frustrated, nor too easy so that they become bored. People tend to quit the task if either of these conditions happens.
- Feedback: It is critical that those who take on the challenge have clear short-term goals and receive immediate feedback on their success. This keeps people informed of their progress, as well as their successes and failures, and allows them to adjust their actions in line with their goals.
A flow state results from actively focusing one’s attention on a task. However, the task has to challenge their skills, have clear goals, and give immediate feedback.
Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002 show the following nine universal factors of flow are:
- Challenge-skill balance
- Action-awareness merging
- Clear goals
- Unambiguous feedback
- Concentration on the task at hand
- A sense of control
- Loss of self-consciousness
- Transformation of time
- Autotelic experience
In 1996, when the magazine Wired asked the Father of Flow, “What do you mean by flow?”, Csikszentmihalyi replied:
(Flow is) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
All of us can get into the flow state by learning the way to concentrate and hold our attention. Once in a flow state, you will be losing your consciousness of the surroundings, while becoming one with the activity in your hand.
The flow is a state of immersion into a self-contained universe, whenever we get involved in an activity of profound interest.
History of Flow
As we know, the concept of flow is not unique to modern beings. This state of complete immersion into the task at hand has been mentioned many times throughout history and culture.
Examples are Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel, Orpheus and his golden lyre, and Arjuna and the eye of the fish.
Flow always existed. No one invented a particular set of exercises that can make you enter the flow state.
The world has long known that painters, sculptors, musicians, and other artists can become so engrossed in their craft that they forget to eat, drink, or even sleep.
In 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high) scientifically discovered, researched, and brought the concept of flow into the public limelight. He is one of the founders of Positive Psychology.
The Hungarian-American psychology professor and his colleagues discovered flow — an optimal state of happiness these people were entering and working from — when they were asking themselves, “What makes these artists get lost in their work?”
What really makes people glad to be alive?
The professor himself accepts this:
To call it a ‘discovery’ is perhaps misleading, for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time. Yet, the word is appropriate because…it has not been described or theoretically explained by… psychology.
Flow State Of Happiness
Many people are unhappy because their minds are in a state of hyperstimulation trying to process a load of information from too many sources.
Once we learn to focus more fixedly on one thing at one time, it creates an intensely focused and calm mind. This is entering the flow state. It brings us authentic happiness.
Flow is highly correlated with happiness, both subjective and psychological well-being.— Csikszentmihalyi, 1997
Csikszentmihalyi often used to say that people are happiest when they are in a “state of flow.”
According to him, happiness is not a fixed state, but a state that can be entered into as we learn to achieve flow in our lives.
To define the importance of flow in our lives relating to happiness, he says,
The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
When we get into the flow state, our surroundings seem to blur, time appears to stall, and we lose our distractions while gaining an uncommon peace. Some suggest that those who invite frequent flow experiences into their lives tend to be happier and calmer.
Moreover, people in flow find themselves more productive and less stressed. A flow experience is its own prize, and it is rare that you require any after-activity rewards.
Tasks and activities that lead to flow must find a balance in the task difficulty and the skill-set levels.
A flow state characterizes absolute immersion in the task until you complete it.
Anxiety or ennui can restrict a steady state of flow. If you find the challenge too tough, you become anxious — and therefore, unhappy.
On the flip side, if your skills square up rather too nice, you become bored — and therefore, unhappy.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, this
…explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.
He further says,
Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.
Finding The Flow State
Csikszentmihalyi and Larson in the early 1970s found a method of research in which they asked the participants to stop at certain times during their day and record their current experiences.
This was the Experience Sampling Method (ESM, also called the ‘daily diary method’). The researchers used ESM for the first time to study flow and find out the activities that easily get people into flow states. During their studies, their team collected around 70,000 pages from about 2,300 respondents.
He declared in an article in Psychology Today in 1997, that “the ESM has found that flow generally occurs when a person is doing his or her favorite activity – gardening, listening to music, bowling, and cooking a good meal.”
Flow also occurs when driving, talking to friends, and surprisingly often at work. Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.
Ebb And Flow of A Memory
The author of this post has an interesting, personal memory related to flow.
In 2008, I had snipped a small pixelated picture from a local newspaper and had stuck it to my clinic whiteboard. I had layered it up with Scotch tape so that the weather elements wouldn’t pale it over. And there it stayed until a few years back, when the board got replaced.
In that picture, a young Harvard teacher named Tal Ben-Shahar was explaining an x-y graph, labeled with terms like skill level, task difficulty, anxiety, boredom, and “flow.”
Tal Ben-Shahar got the world’s attention when in 20017 his course PSY 1504 — Positive Psychology became the most popular course in the Harvard catalog ever. A total of 854 students enrolled in it.
It was historical because it surpassed even the course on Introductory Economics, for which the university is famous all over the world. The international media labeled this as “Happiness 101” and Tal Ben-Shahar became the popular face of Positive Psychology.
Over the years, this course went on to attract 1400 students who searched for happiness.
That picture continued to enamor me over the years. It was many years later that I came to understand the scribbling there in white on black: The Flow Theory of Happiness.
As suggested by Nadia Goodman, an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, in Entrepreneur, the 4 tips to stay happy by getting into Flow are:
- Skill-specific task: Choose challenging activities that fit your skills.
- Goals map: Know the steps to reach your goals.
- Time allocation: Set aside distraction-free time.
- Instant feedback: Get feedback on your work.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, mindfulness, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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