How To Find The Flow State of Happiness

happily lost in flow state
Friends Lost In A “Flow” State of Happiness

How can you steer your mind into a zone of blissful happiness? The short answer: By driving your mind into a “flow” state of happiness.

Entering the flow state at will is the secret of state of blissful joy 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

Have you ever been so totally immersed in a task that you forgot the outside world? You might have been doing some work that you have deep love for, like playing a sport or reading a book, and went absolutely oblivious to the outside world?

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. Did it happen to you?

If you nodded yes to any of those, most probably you were experiencing a state of flow.

When in the “flow” state, the brain is in a territory between the conscious and the subconscious.

In flow, the radiating brainwaves are at the alpha-theta border. This sets up the brain to function at an optimal state, allowing for creative and novel ideas to emerge at swift speeds.

In flow, there is a smooth merger of fast decisions and creative insights. This is the state of best productivity with least exertion.

Flow is a state of immense joy that encloses one in the present moment in a heightened state of creativity, productivity, and satisfaction.

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.”

Ebb And Flow of A Memory

The author of this post has an interesting, distant memory related to flow. Here it goes:

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, labelled with terms as skill level, task difficulty, anxiety, boredom, and “flow.”

Tal Ben-Shahar Teaching Flow State
Tal Ben-Shahar Teaching Flow, Harvard, 2007

Tal Ben-Shahar got the world’s attention when in 20017 his course PSY 1504 — Positive Psychology became the most popular course in 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 for all over the world. The international media labelled 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.

The History of Flow

As we know, flow wasn’t something exceptional to the modern humanity. Throughout histories and cultures were numerous mentions of this state of absolute absorption into the work at hand.

For example, Michelangelo and Sistine chapel, Orpheus and his golden lyre, Arjuna and the eye of the fish.

No one invented a particular set of exercises that can make you enter the flow state.

Flow always existed.

The world has known that painters, sculptors, musicians, and many other artists oftentimes lose themselves so deep in their work that they forget eating, drinking and even sleeping.

In 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high) scientifically discovered, researched and brought the concept of flow into 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, in his own words,

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.

mihalyi csikszentmihalyi researched flow state

The Flow Theory In Psychology

Csikszentmihalyi often describes flow as an autotelic experience. The autotelic person is one who generally does things for their own sake, in the “here and now”, rather than for some long-term goals.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 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.

Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of routines.

They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.

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.

  1. Goal: A flow state gets created when people take on challenges they perceive to be just at the right level for their expertise. That is, the challenge has to be neither too hard so that they find it frustrating, nor too easy so that they find it boring. If it’s either, people tend to abandon the challenge.
  2. Feedback: It is vital that the people taking up the challenge have clear short-term goals, and they receive instant feedback on their progress. This help them stay notified of their progress along with their gains and misses, and lets them modify their actions according to their set goals.

A flow state erupts from focusing one’s attention intensely to a task. But this will have be a task that will challenge their skills, and carry clear goals and have immediate feedback.

Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002 show the following nine universal factors of flow are:

  1. Challenge-skill balance
  2. Action-awareness merging
  3. Clear goals
  4. Unambiguous feedback
  5. Concentration on the task at hand
  6. A sense of control
  7. Loss of self-consciousness
  8. Transformation of time
  9. Autotelic experience

In 1996, Wired asked the Father of Flow, “What do you mean by flow?”

Czikszentmihalyi 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 flow state, you will be losing the consciousness of your self, 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 deep interest.

What makes an experience genuinely satisfying is 'flow' - that leads to a state of happiness. Click To Tweet

The 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 intense focused and a 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.

— Cziksentmihalyi, 1997

Professor Csikszentmihalyi is often used to saying 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 in relation 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.

Also, 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.

Those who repeatedly invite flow experiences into their lives tend to be happier. Click To Tweet

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 till 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 the current experience.

This was the Experience Sampling Method, or ESM, (also called ‘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 a total of 70,000 pages from about 2,300 respondents.

Flow generally occurs when a person is doing his or her favorite activity. Click To Tweet

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.

It 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.”

1. Finding Flow At Work

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes,

Work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day. It usually has clear goals and rules of performance. It provides feedback either in the form of knowing that one has finished a job well done, in terms of measurable sales or through an evaluation by one’s supervisor. A job tends to encourage concentration and prevent distractions, and ideally, its difficulties match the worker’s skills.

Nevertheless, if we had the chance most of us would like to work less. One reason is the historical disrepute of work, which each of us learn as we grow up.

Yet we can’t blame family, society, or history if our work is meaningless, dull, or stressful. Admittedly, there are few options when we realize that our job is useless or actually harmful.

Read more on how to find flow at work, here.

2. Finding Flow At Play

On this, Csikszentmihalyi  says,

Leisure time in our society is occupied by three major sorts of activities: media consumption, conversation, and active leisure--such as hobbies, making music, going to restaurants and movies, sports, and exercise. Not all of these free-time activities are the same in their potential for flow.

Why would we spend four times more of our free time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good?

Each of the flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be enjoyable. If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.

3. Finding Flow At Social Meets

On ways to achieve flow in social interaction, the professor suggests,

A successful interaction involves finding some compatibility between our goals and those of the other person or persons, and becoming willing to invest attention in the other person’s goals. When these conditions are met, it is possible to experience the flow that comes from optimal interaction.

Further, he says,

The same holds true for any other type of interaction. The secret of starting a good conversation is to find out what the other person’s goals are: What is he interested in at the moment? What is she involved in? What has he or she accomplished, or is trying to accomplish?

Final Words

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:

  1. Skill-specific task: Choose challenging activities that fit your skills.
  2. Goals map: Know the steps to reach your goals.
  3. Time allocation: Set aside distraction-free time.
  4. Instant feedback: Get feedback on your work.

Here is a short animation explaining the Flow theory:

mihaly csikszentmihalyi flow theory
What is “flow” state of happiness?
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.

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