Let’s Rezone

What is Flow?

Have you ever been so absorbed by an activity that you lost all sense of time? Were you ever so focused on your task at hand that all your worries drifted away? If so, you may have been in a mental state psychologists refer to as, ‘flow’.

Young boy playing a musical instrument

According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, people enter a state of flow when they are completely immersed in an activity of interest. A guitarist playing over a piece of music, or a costume designer transferring their ideas from pen to paper may reach this state of flow. In an interview for Wired magazine, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi stated, “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”.

Characteristics of Flow

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi proposed ten factors that are characteristic of flow. He suggested that most of these factors would be present when an individual enters their state of flow. Such characteristics included:

  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding;
  • In completing the activity, the individual is working towards well-defined, challenging, and attainable goals;
  • The individual is attentive solely to the activity of interest;
  • The individual feels a strong sense of control over the activity of interest and the outcomes;
  • The individual’s concept of self falls away when engaged in the activity;
  • In completing the activity, the individual is mindful of the quality of their input;
  • The individual loses awareness of their physiological needs (e.g., sleep);
  • There is a balance between the individual’s skill level and the challenge of the task;
  • The individual is hyper focused on the task at hand;
  • The individual loses track of time.

Ultimately, the activity of interest must be sufficiently challenging but accomplishable in order for us to enter a state of flow. When we are laying in bed, scrolling through facebook and Instagram, we are not in this state of flow. Such an activity requires no challenge and little skill to be undertaken.

Artist PaintingBenefits of Flow

The benefits of flow are numerous and well documented. Research suggests that when engaged in a state of flow, our brain releases a chemical messenger called dopamine. When dopamine is released, we feel pleasure. Since the feeling of pleasure is inherently reinforcing, the state of flow is inherently reinforcing. Over time, we become motivated to seek out that state of flow, and to do this, we return to our activities of interest. Returning to this state of flow allows us to master our activity. Think of a painter returning to their canvas every weekend and developing their artistic abilities.

What is the Connection between Flow and Well-being?

There are also many health benefits of flow. When we are in a state of flow, there is no time to experience sadness and worry. As such, flow promotes emotional regulation. Flow teaches us that engagement in our activities of interest can help us cope. Practicing an instrument, editing a photograph, or writing a novel then becomes a powerful coping tool.

Male Reading

Since flow promotes mastery through engagement, flow can also be used to build our confidence and self-esteem. When we reflect on how far we have come in our activities of interest we acknowledge the value of our efforts, and therefore ourselves. Flow encourages us to take on new challenges as we feel we have the confidence to do so.

How Do We Increase our Chances of Achieving Flow?

In reaching flow, it is helpful to use the principles of SMART goals. SMART goals are goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time oriented. For example, if you are wanting to learn how to play the drums, you assign yourself the goal of practicing drums for half-an-hour on the coming Saturday in your bedroom between 2:00PM and 2:30PM. It is also helpful to eliminate distractions or objects which can compete for your attention. For example, when learning how to play the drums, leave your mobile phone and laptop in another room and check the devices only when you have completed your SMART goal.

Finally, as your skill level increases, so too should the challenging nature of your SMART goals. It’s important, however, that you increase the level of challenge gradually. If you push yourself too much too soon, you risk misalignment between the activity and your skill level. This may result in frustration, and disrupt your state of flow.

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