Flow happens when we are fully immersed and fully involved in an activity. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi introduced this positive psychology concept, based both on observation of successful people and his own family entourage. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi often mentions his own older brother which, despite the hardship lived as prisoner in Russia, still found flow while observing under the microscope his collection of minerals.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.
In “Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). “The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation”. in Jacobs, J.E.. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 60. ISBN 0803292104″ and “Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, ISBN 0875892612″ ten factors are identified as accompanying an experience of flow (not all are needed for flow to be experienced.):
1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
10. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
It is very important to consider that, while nowadays the concept of flow seems almost intuitive to grasp, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had to work hard to get it into the mainstream, at a time when even Maslow was considered by the establishment as wishful thinking.
Mental state: challenge level and skill level
This image, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows that to achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. A task which is too easy or too difficult, prevents flow, because both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high. When skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results instead of flow.
The concept of flow is also part of Martin Seligman’s happiness formula, together with pleasure and meaning.