Experiencing the State of Flow

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What do we do in our everyday lives that is worth doing for its own sake? This relates to the experience of “flow”, a key ingredient for wellbeing. As described by the renowned Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, increasing our opportunities for flow, which typically involves acting in an automatic and spontaneous way whilst voluntarily pursuing a challenging goal, is one of the most reliable ways of consistently enhancing one’s quality of life.


The nature of flow experience


When we experience flow our self-consciousness disappears and our sense of the passage of time is altered. Experiencing flow is ultimately about our capacity to focus our attention on a task where our skill level is a good match for a significant challenge that we face.

Many people will have heard of a sports champion, or an artist or musician experiencing flow, where they are performing their craft at the peak of their skills, fully present in the moment, and barely aware of the passage of time. For example, local athlete Jakara Anthony described how she experienced this during her gold medal mogul skiing performance at the 2022 winter Olympics, saying, “In that 30 seconds [of that run], I couldn’t hear the crowd. I felt no pressure, I wasn’t thinking about the competition. I was just in the moment loving mogul skiing just like I did as a kid.”

Such peak experiences are perhaps rare, but most of us will experience flow in more ordinary ways on an everyday basis, depending on our preferred activities. It is a highly individualized experience depending on our skills, interests, values and personality attributes.


How to recognize flow in our everyday lives


It’s worth paying attention to when we are most commonly in flow, as it makes our lives more enjoyable, builds our confidence, helps us develop our skills and helps us feel fully alive and most fully ourselves. All the better if this occurs whilst doing things that benefit others as well.

One way of identifying our own experience of flow is to ask ourselves what activities we engage in that we feel are worth doing for their own sake? What things do we put time and active effort into at some cost, without expectation of external rewards? What things do we do that not only seem personally rewarding, but whilst doing them we are so actively immersed in the activity that we are barely aware of the passage of time? For some it may be gardening or reading, whilst for others it might be cooking or playing a musical instrument. If we have an abiding interest or hobby or favourite sport, it’s likely to be one that helps us to experience flow.

Interestingly, we are more likely to experience flow at work then at leisure, despite our cultural tendency to view leisure activities as being preferable to work and more enjoyable. For example, research has suggested that people experienced flow just over 50% of the time at work, but just under 20% of the time when at leisure. This is because the experience of flow involves being actively engaged in something involving a challenge. Passive leisure activities such as watching TV or scrolling through social media might serve as a relaxing distraction, but are not likely to generate a flow experience. Flow involves a deliberate investment of energy.


How to generate flow


Csikszentmihalyi spelt out the specific conditions that help generate a state of flow. In order to experience flow we need to be actively focused and deeply involved in some voluntary task.  We must be able to concentrate and have control over our actions. The task must have clear goals and allow for immediate feedback. Experiencing flow is ultimately about our capacity to focus our attention on a task where our skills are well matched to the level of challenge. It will not occur if a challenge is too easy when we’ll likely be bored, or too difficult, when we’ll likely feel anxious or out of our depth. We might experience the greatest level of flow when we succeed at something worthwhile despite being stretched to our limits.

There are ways we can experience more flow at work by finding extra ways to incorporate variety and challenge. We can clarify specific goals and monitor our progress, including seeking feedback. We can aim to draw on our best skills and attributes, including our character strengths, at least occasionally planning extra ways to stretch ourselves in these areas. This helps us not only further develop our skills, but to express our individuality and grow. We are then more likely to feel creative and motivated.

It can take some planning or effort to find ways of experiencing flow with unstructured leisure time. As Csikszentmihalyi emphasized, an ongoing life challenge is how we manage time in solitude when there are no external demands to structure our attention. It helps to enrich our experience of free time with engaging activites that require concentration, increase our skills and contribute to our personal growth.

It may greatly help in this regard to have abiding interests, such as a sport or a craft, etc, where we can keep coming back to an activity that combines personal interest with a level of discipline. We are likely to experience our lowest moods when we are alone and have no demands on us. Having lots of free time might sound like a bonus, but if we don’t fill it with engaging activities, our leisure time won’t likely be very satisfying.


Experiencing flow despite adversity


A major challenge to our experience of flow is if we face adversity such as trauma, loss, injury or illness. It is then likely to be especially difficult to order our everyday experience and to focus our attention. To allow ourselves to regroup, it can be important to reduce expectations on ourselves for a time, to draw on our social supports and to try not to become too detached or disengaged. When we’re most struggling with challenging circumstances, the best we might do is to focus on a level of acceptance and self-compassion.

However, people might still experience a level of flow in the most challenging of circumstances if they adopt an active coping approach that allows for some external focus and self-directed goals. This might include focussing our efforts on modest goals, appreciating our efforts and paying attention to the moments of joy that give some uplift.

Learning mindfulness techniques or other related strategies such as meditation or yoga can help us gradually regain our capacity to focus and direct our attention, whilst managing with distracting thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Cultivating an underlying sense of meaning and purpose adds to this resilience, partly by helping bring more order to our inner life and helping direct our attention to things that we find heartening or uplifting.

Many people who come through very harsh or difficult times are strengthened by ultimately rising above adversity. This is a common theme in literature and film referred to as “the hero’s journey”. We might then often also have an enhanced sense of gratitude or appreciation for what makes life worthwhile. As the American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell described, a good life is likely based on a series of hero’s journeys.

Throughout the world we have a collective experience of adversity through the Covid-19 pandemic. Most people would have faced significant restrictions in their activities through periods of lockdown, social distancing, workplace changes and barriers to travel. Most of us would have been denied some of our favoured leisure and social activities, at least for a period of time. Restricted opportunities over recent years might have a silver lining in focusing our attention on what we most missed, and what we might return to. On the other hand, if there were new enjoyable activities or routines that we introduced during the pandemic, they might be worth incorporating somehow into the future as additional ways of experiencing flow.


Personality characteristics that enhance flow


Csikszentmihalyi described characteristics of people who are likely to experience flow more frequently, including in adverse circumstances. He described them as having an “autotelic personality”, meaning they seek out and pursue activities that are worth doing for their own sake. Such individuals tend to look for opportunities and take on challenges in life that will help them grow. They will often have a unifying purpose in their life that guides them. In other words, they are guided more by intrinsic motivation rather than by seeking external rewards such as status or financial gain. When facing major obstacles, they might adjust their direction and plans whilst still finding ways to focus their energy on their personal goals. This helps them to maintain considerable order or harmony in their inner life. It helps them adjust to external circumstances without losing sight of their main priorities or sense of purpose.

People with an autotelic personality tend to be individualistic, but not ego driven. They generally relate well to other people and to the world around them. A classic example of such a person is Viktor Frankl who described and detailed his experience in a concentration camp in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. He drew on this experience to develop logotherapy, a therapy approach that helps people find intrinsic meaning in their own lives.

Anything we do to develop out capacity to focus and organise our attention, to identify our main sources of motivation and to bring positive order to our lives will enhance our capacity to experience flow.

For more on this topic, listen to our Psych Spiels podcast at https://www.chrismackey.com.au/flourishing-with-flow/.

For more mental health and positive psychology articles, see  https://www.chrismackey.com.au/tag/clinical-handouts.