Athletes call it “getting in the zone” but sport and exercise are just two ways to get the benefits of a flow state. Positive psychologists sometimes call it a state of positive engagement. What exactly is a flow state and why would you want to be in it?
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is sometimes considered the father of flow. He defines it as “optimal experience” and believes what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is the state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.
9 Characteristics of Flow
- The activity requires skill or is challenging
- There is direct and immediate feedback (you know if you are successful)
- There is a clear goal
- Action & awareness become merged
- You are fully absorbed in the task
- There is a sense of control or mastery
- You lose self-consciousness
- Time seems to speed up or slow down
- The task is intrinsically rewarding
Basically flow requires a high level of skill and challenge. This means that although you can lose track of time while reading a good book, you probably weren’t in a state of flow while reading.
Why Does Flow Matter?
According to Steven Kotler, Flow Genome Project founder, flow might benefit you if:
- You are finding it increasingly hard to shut off your relentless Inner Critic
- You spend most of your time not in the present, but “elsewhere”— daydreaming or worrying about the past or the future
- You routinely run out of willpower and have a list of personal dreams and goals that never get any closer to reality
- You’ve looked into some spiritual or personal growth programs but felt like an outsider or a total cynic—unwilling to “drink the kool-aid”
- You find yourself looking back on an earlier phase in your life where you did experience Flow, and have been quietly resigning yourself to never seeing “the good old days” again
- You self medicate or distract in ways that leave you feeling even less satisfied than before (think: social media, Netflix binges, shopping, porn, video games, substances)
- You occasionally ask yourself “is this really all there is?” and suspect the answer might just be, yes
He says “flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best”.
What Research Says About Flow
Flow increases your positive emotions
Flow stops procrastination
You feel healthier in the short term
You may feel depleted emotionally and physically after long periods of flow state
Accumulation of flow increases one’s ability to flourish
Flow at work increases productivity & innovation
Flow Happens in a Cycle
It begins with a struggle. It is always about greater and greater challenge so the struggle may be to set the next goal or to get started toward the next goal.
The next step is release- you are doing your thing and let go of expectations, get present, and become completely engaged.
You then hit the flow state, where your high level of skill comes together with the big challenge. It’s a peak experience not a permanent one.
When the flow stage is over, there is a period of recovery.
Flow For Teens
I ran a dance studio for many years and at least once a year I would have a teen student call to say they couldn’t make it to class because they had just been dumped by their boyfriend. I always told them that coming to class when they felt too sad, too angry or too broken was actually the perfect choice. Dance requires a balance of skill and challenge that puts you right in a flow state. After class I would always hear from the student that for the hour they had forgotten their troubles and, even better, the chemicals released by the brain during the flow state had a lasting effect that kept them feeling a bit better even after they stopped dancing. Teens quite often have trouble getting out of the negative loop of conversations in their head. Finding a way to engage in a flow state can help.
What Are the Flow State Chemicals?
Performance enhancing chemicals are released by your brain when you are in the flow. These include:
These amplify motivation, creativity and our ability to learn.
Can You Find Flow at Work?
Interestingly most people report preferring leisure over work yet people experience more flow at work. 54% of flow state happens on the job. Flow is often thought of as a solo experience but flow can happen in groups and in fact it is somewhat contagious. Performing a flow activity yourself is one way to experience flow but watching someone experience a state of flow also gives you, the spectator, some of the benefits.
Don’t Forget the Downside of Flow
People who have bipolar disease or narcissistic tendencies can get addicted to a flow state which can lead to risk taking and self-centeredness. You can also get into a flow state at a time where it doesn’t work. One example of this would be a teacher who gets fully engaged in teaching a concept that is above their students’ level. The teacher gets the flow experience of delivering a lesson they love however if the class all spaced out, the lesson was not effective.
Finally, the Five C’s
If you want to nurture flow in yourself, in your children or in your team at work there are five things you need.
- Clarity- goals and expectations need to be measurable. Who will do how much of what by when?
- Choice- flow activities aren’t prescribed, they are choices.
- Commitment- involvement in an activity of interest where there is no judgement
- Challenge- continually setting higher goals for yourself as you master your current challenge
- Centered- the activity requires you to stay focused and present
I know for me dance, yoga, public speaking, and creative work like graphic design put me in a flow state. Where do you attain a state of flow? Comment below.