Have you ever been so engaged in a task that it feels like time freezes around you? Have you ever looked up from a project and realized hours have passed when it only felt like minutes? If so, you may have been experiencing what positive psychologists call “flow.” Flow is a mental state in which we are totally immersed in an activity that is challenging and engaging; most people will experience flow while working on something they are skilled at and enjoy (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Cherry, 2021). The flow state is often experienced by artists, musicians, and athletes, but you can experience flow during any active hobby or job, from playing video games to doing office work. This mental state has the power to improve your mood, boost your productivity, and increase your overall happiness and fulfillment; perhaps the best part about flow is that we have the opportunity to experience it every day.
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Hungarian-American psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, who was the first to describe the flow state, understands flow as “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” (Geirland, 1996, para. 4).
The key to an activity that produces flow is that there is a balance between challenge and skill (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). If the task is too challenging, we may become anxious or frustrated. If it is not challenging enough, we may become disinterested or bored. When it is perfectly balanced, however, we need all of our concentration to manage the challenge, and so we become immersed in it.
Another important aspect of a flow activity is that there is clear, immediate feedback to our actions (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). A musician can tell right away if they have played the right note when performing a sonata. A climber knows that with every step they get closer to the top of the mountain. A basketball player knows with every pass or toss if their position has become better or worse. When we are not sure how we are doing, it can become hard to remain engaged, and so we may find it harder to maintain a flow state.
Combined with these two important factors, there are a total of nine characteristics altogether that those in flow tend to experience (Cherry, 2021; Hancock et al., 2019). These include:
Although you do not have to experience all of these at once to be in a flow state, most flow activities involve at least a few of these major qualities.
One of the most immediate benefits to experiencing flow is that it is fulfilling and rewarding (Cherry, 2021). Being engrossed in a task that consumes our entire focus and allows us to demonstrate and hone our skills can feel incredibly satisfying, especially when we have something to show for it, like a piece of art or success in a game. This is especially true because, most of the time, we experience flow during activities which we love to do, and so they are naturally enjoyable.
Perhaps a greater benefit to flow, however, is increased happiness and positive emotion (Rogatko, 2009; Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Of course, we typically do not feel happy during flow, because to feel joy would require us to focus on our internal states, which would take away from the focus we need to concentrate on the task at hand. The musician has no time to feel happy when performing a challenging piece, and the mountain climber has no time to feel happy when they are hanging off of a rock face. Rather, it is just after our flow experiences that we tend to feel intense feelings of happiness, pride, and self-fulfillment.
In fact, Csikszentmihalyi believes that flow activities are the key to experiencing more happiness in our daily lives. If you can develop your skills at work, in art, or in an active hobby, you will have an opportunity to experience flow every day. As Csikszentmihalyi (1997) writes, “A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background” (p. 31).
Furthermore, the happiness we experience as a result of flow is superior to other forms of happiness, as it comes from ourselves rather than from someone or something else (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). A good amount of our happiness is derived from external things, like money, luxuries, or experiences, and while we have every right to enjoy these things, the happiness we feel from them is less stable because these external factors can be removed. Happiness resulting from flow, however, is derived from feelings of gratitude, contentment, and self-fulfillment, which are all intrinsic feelings. In other words, the happiness we get from flow cannot be taken away.
Flow also has a role in the workplace, as it has been linked to impressive increases in performance and productivity (Cherry, 2021). In fact, one study conducted over the course of 10 years found that executives were five times more productive when they were experiencing flow, and even just an increase of 15 - 20% more time spent in flow could almost double workplace productivity (Kotler, 2014). These incredible numbers demonstrate the value of flow both in one’s personal life and at work.
Finally, flow can boost creativity (Cherry, 2021). Especially for artists, peak performance means that all of one’s creative energy is harnessed and one is not experiencing any distractions or roadblocks in the creative process. In musicians, flow is tied to creativity in composition and experiences of flow tend to increase with each hour that a musician has practiced, regardless of their level of expertise (Araújo & Hein, 2019). Flow is perhaps most associated with the arts for this reason, as it is in these expressive disciplines that one must focus and immerse themselves in their craft to create a beautiful or inspiring piece of art.
You may think that finding a flow activity merely means doing something that you find fun or enjoyable. While it is true that you should enjoy an activity to experience flow, there are a few other important qualities of flow that may be missing in many leisure activities. In fact, the conditions that characterize flow—facing a challenge, solving a problem, clear feedback, and having goals and rules—are often absent from our free time (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). To explain why this is the case, Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between passive hobbies and active hobbies. Passive hobbies are those in which you have no specific interaction or involvement with what you are doing; for example, watching TV is unlikely to help you experience flow. By contrast, active hobbies require that you interact with or make something. This can include music, art, theatre, dance, athletics, sewing, cooking, or competitive games, to name just a few. You may even find your place of work helps you experience flow, especially in activities like planning, problem solving, and evaluating (Nielsen & Cleal, 2010).
In leisure time, it can become easy and tempting to slip into passive hobbies, which can make us feel relaxed, especially after a long day. However, a better way to maximize flow would be to opt for active hobbies that include challenges, skills, and goals. One of the best ways to do this is to engage in activities that involve some of the nine characteristics of flow discussed above (Cherry, 2021).
As you engage with your flow activity, balance your skill level with the challenges (Cherry, 2021). If your flow activity becomes too easy, find a way to increase the difficulty. For example, if you keep winning at chess against a friend or family member, seek out a more skilled opponent. If the challenges become too insurmountable, find a way to decrease them to return to the flow state. If you are having a difficult time hiking, try an easier trail or get a friend or mentor to help you. In this way, you can match your skill level to the challenges to increase your experiences of flow.
Additionally, minimize distractions whenever possible (Cherry, 2021). The flow state requires your full attention, and any distractions could easily pull you out of it. When you are ready to engage with your flow activity, try to reduce distractions in the environment by having some quiet time and space set aside for yourself. For example, if your flow activity is writing, set up a time to go to a local coffee shop to write every few days. This way you can avoid being distracted by family or work responsibilities at home.
A flow activity can take place alone (such as a sculptor working late at night) or with a group (like a band of musicians improvising); it can be a tremendous rush of adrenaline (like skiing) or calm and serene (like doing yoga). Whatever your flow activity is, it should be something that you truly enjoy doing, or at least something that you find fulfilling.
Flow is one of the most interesting and powerful mental states in psychology. The flow state of complete immersion has been related to increases in happiness, productivity boosts, bursts of creativity, and elevated enjoyment and fulfillment in life. Moreover, it is possible for anyone to achieve flow on a daily basis both at work and in one’s personal life. Using this simple but reliable tool of positive psychology, we can all improve our wellbeing and increase our flourishing in our day-to-day lives.
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Araújo, M. V., & Hein, C. F. (2019). A survey to investigate advanced musicians’ flow disposition in individual music practice. International Journal of Music Education, 37(1), 107-117. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0255761418814563
Cherry, K. (2021). The psychology of flow. VeryWellMind.com. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-flow-2794768#citation-3
Csikszentmihalyi M. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books; 1997.
Geirland, J. (1996). Go with the flow. Wired.com. https://www.wired.com/1996/09/czik/
Hancock, P. A., Kaplan, A. D., Cruit, J. K., Hancock, G. M., MacArthur, K. R., & Szalma, J. L. (2019). A meta-analysis of flow effects and the perception of time. Acta Psychologica, 198, 102836. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0001691818305730
Kotler, S. (2014). Create a work environment that fosters flow. hbr.org. https://hbr.org/2014/05/create-a-work-environment-that-fosters-flow
Nielsen, K., & Cleal, B. (2010). Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15(2), 180-190. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20364915/
Rogatko, T. (2009). The influence of flow on positive affect in college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(2), 133-148. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-007-9069-y