What Is “Flow” (How To Find This Authentic State of Joy)

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

What is flow? How does this state allow us to be at our best while being fatigue-free? How can we enter this state of happiness at will?

Have you ever been so engrossed in a task that you forgot about the outer world? You may have been reading a new book. And hours had passed unnoticed by the time you “woke up.” That was “flow.”

Can you steer your mind into such a zone of blissful happiness? Short answer: yes, through entering 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, hungry, sleepy, or bored.

In flow, a state that we can learn to achieve, we produce our best work.

What Is “Flow”

“Flow” is a state of intense joy that keeps a person grounded in the present moment while allowing them to perform at their peak level of creativity, productivity, and fulfillment.​ The brain in “flow” is in a zone between conscious and subconscious. This sets up the brain for optimal functioning, letting creative and novel ideas emerge rapidly.

What is flow, the authentic state of joy
Flow: The Optimal State of Joy

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is called the Father of Flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi (2000), who originally proposed this concept, flow is the “holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.”

Here is perhaps the best definition of flow:

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”

In flow, your entire attention is on the “what” and “how” of your work, taking place right then and there. In fact, you are so absorbed that you do not see how the hours pass and the morning turns into an evening.

According to EEG studies, the flow state is characterized by increased theta and alpha waves in the frontal areas and moderate alpha waves in the frontal and central areas of the brain (Katahira & Yamazaki, 2018).

When the magazine Wired him “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.

mihaly csikszentmihalyi flow theory
What is the “flow” state of happiness?

Benefits of Flow

Here are some proven benefits of flow:

  • Flow is a powerful source of positive experience. Flow triggers a feeling that becomes its own reward.
  • Flow increases motivation. Those who achieve the flow state in an activity feel more motivated to engage in that activity (Jackson et al., 1998).
  • Flow enhances performance. Those in a flow state continue to perform at higher levels since they keep finding innovative solutions to tackle the problems within a task (Jackson et al., 2001; MacDonald et al., 2006).
  • High achievers use flow experiences to avoid both anxiety and boredom. Anxiety occurs when the difficulty level but not the skill level is high (the reason low achievers in school study less). Boredom occurs when the skill level but not the difficulty level is high. Flow occurs when skill and challenge levels are both above average and balanced against each other (Nakamura, 1988).
  • Flow is characterized by the seamless integration of quick decisions and creative insights that result in optimal productivity with the least amount of effort. So, flow is a state of intense, optimal, and satisfying happiness because you get the highest ROI (return on investment) for your efforts.

How To Find Flow: The Authentic State of Joy

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 can also occur when driving, talking to friends, and surprisingly often at work. Very rarely, some people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.

Flow Theory In Positive Psychology

Flow is an optimal experience, defined as a sense of intrinsic reward felt during immersive engagement in a task that inspires intense commitment.

Research by Csikszentmihalyi showed a flow state needs at least two key things to exist together: goals and feedback.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 on a task. However, the task must be challenging, have clear goals, and provide immediate feedback.

What is Flow in Psychology
What is the flow state of happiness?

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

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

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 lose 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.

Flow = Autotelic Experience

Flow is an autotelic experience (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

An autotelic experience refers to an activity that is inherently pleasant, enjoyable, and motivating.

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 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.”

History of Flow

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

Flow is not unique to modern beings, and 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.

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) researched and brought the concept of flow into the public limelight. He was also one of the founders of Positive Psychology.

When the Hungarian-American psychology professor and his colleagues set out to explore what makes people get lost in a task they are working on, they discovered flow.

The professor himself accepted 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.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi researched flow state
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: Father of “Flow”

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 a 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 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 between 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 nicely, 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.

Ebb And Flow of A Memory

The author of this post has an interesting, personal memory related to flow.

In 2008, I snipped a small pixelated picture from a local newspaper and 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 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 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.

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.

√ Please share it with someone if you found this helpful.

√ Also Read: Driving Success: Exploring The Psychology of Motivation

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