Flow (Optimal Experience in Psychology)

Think of a time when you were totally absorbed in something. Perhaps it was dancing, running, writing, or another activity you’re passionate about. You were “in the zone”, happily focused, unaware of your surroundings and the passing hours. 

Most of us have experienced this state of maximal concentration and engagement in doing something we enjoy. In psychology, it is known as flow. 

What is Flow? 

Flow is a cognitive state in which we are fully immersed in an activity and feel energized focus and happiness. Flow is achieved by matching an individual’s skill level with a medium amount of challenge. 

how to achieve flow

The phenomenon of flow was discovered in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist known for his research in the domains of creativity and happiness and one of the founders of positive psychology. 

In his interviews with dozens of athletes, musicians, artists, and other creatives, Csíkszentmihályi discovered an interesting occurrence. These professionals were working in different fields and came from different backgrounds and cultures. Yet all of them experienced a similar state of concentration and engagement when they were immersed in their work. It is this discovery that marked the beginning of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory. 

So how do psychologists explain the flow state? 

At any given moment, we are bombarded with a huge amount of information coming from various sources. However, our minds can only process a limited amount of information at a time. Csíkszentmihályi estimated that we can pay conscious attention to around 120 bits of information per second. But to understand one single person speaking to us, we have to process 60 bits of information per second. We have already used half of our capacity.

When we are in the flow state, we are entirely absorbed in an activity, whether it’s surfing or programming or playing the violin. Since we are paying our full attention to the task, we have no mental capacity to allocate any more attention elsewhere. That is why we become completely unaware of everything else around us.

How to Achieve Flow? 

Psychologists believe that people with autotelic personalities can experience flow easier than others. These are the individuals who are curious, persistent and have a low degree of self-centeredness. But that’s not all. They tend to do things for their own sake rather than being driven by an external goal, therefore, they need to put less effort into focusing on a task. 

But what about everyone else? 

The good news is, we are all capable of achieving flow with a little exercise. And since the process is so rewarding, the more we practice, the more we seek to replicate the experience. Over time, it becomes easier to reach this frame of mind. 

Social flow, also known as group cohesion, is among the factors that can intensify the level of deep engagement. Take a sports team or an orchestra, for example. When athletes and musicians coordinate their pursuits, they become even more engaged in the task at hand than they would be in a solitary flow. 

Regardless of the personality and flow type, for this kind of mental state to occur, the activity needs to meet the following criteria:

Have a clear short-term goal 

The activity we’re working on must have clear goals and subgoals. When the rules and expectations are clear, we can immediately recognize success and failure and adjust our performance accordingly.

Allow feedback on the progress 

Receiving clear feedback on the progress serves as a confirmation that we are improving. The feedback, either in the form of internal awareness or an observation coming from others, motivates us to continue doing our task. 

Offer balance between challenge and skills 

Flow occurs when we are engaged in an activity that we enjoy. But we must also have the necessary skills and be confident in our ability to complete it. Because flow is based on a mastery of a skill, we need to continually adjust the challenges and complexity of the activity. 

Csíkszentmihályi’s eight-channel flow model illustrates the correlation between challenge and skill level. It shows that if the challenge is high and the skill level low, our experience can result in negative emotions such as anxiety and stress. On the other hand, when the challenge is low and the skill level is high, we may easily get bored with the activity and interrupt the flow. 

Benefits of Flow

Achieving flow in everyday life is an essential component of both creativity, productivity, and well-being. The flow state is seen as the optimal experience because it provides a high level of gratification. When we are experiencing a state of creative flow, we are at our happiest. 

Practicing the flow frame of mind enables personal development and growth that lead to happiness.

Let’s take a closer look. 

Emotion regulation 

Experiencing the state of flow can serve as a tool for better emotion regulation. When we engage in flow, we feel success, pride, and accomplishment. We feel efficient and competent in what we are doing. There is no place for doubts about ourselves or the outside world. This sense of autonomy and power helps lower anxiety and raise self-esteem.

People who experience a flow state feel enthusiastic and motivated. They know that they are capable of overcoming challenges and meeting goals. As a result, they have an increased sense of overall satisfaction in life.

Learning and skill development 

The flow state always implies growth. When we find ourselves in this powerful state, we are gaining mastery of our task. We are working to achieve our goals and get better at the activity. That’s why flow is more likely to occur when our project is slightly challenging and we have suitable skills. And if we wish to maintain this state, we must look for increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, more difficult tasks makes us stretch and improve our skills. 

Due to the role it plays in personal development and enhancing performance, inducing flow has a range of practical applications in everything from spirituality, artistic creativity, and sports to business and education.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.