Going with the Flow
Have you ever been so absorbed in a task that you lose your sense of self? Maybe you experienced this while playing a sport, painting a picture, or strumming an instrument. You become so engrossed in some activity that everything seems to just… flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronunced me-high cheek-sent-me-high) a pioneer in understanding the psychology of happiness, found that somewhere in between anxiety and boredom there exists a state of “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi proposed that there are three basic prerequisites for flow:
1. Clear goals and immediate feedback – success or failure are immediately perceived such as in sports
2. Intense, focused concentration on a single task – your attention is honed in
3. Balance between skills and challenge – the degree of difficulty aptly matches the person’s abilities
As you can imagine there are many activities that may fit one or two of these conditions, but it’s rare to experience all three at once.
How do you know when you’re in flow? Csikszentmihalyi also laid out five basic characteristics of the flow state:
1. You feel in control
2. There’s a certain ease and effortlessness to the action
3. Your perception of time is altered – time may speed up or slow down
4. Your awarness and the action merge – you lose self-conscious thought
5. The activity is intrinsically rewarding – you love what you’re doing!
Neurologically, what’s happening in flow state is that you’ve activated the brain’s reward system; dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, norepinephrine and anandamide (nicknamed the “bliss molecule”) all increase. Your brain is in high-gear, lasered in on a single, challenging objective.
Think of a surfer riding along a giant, barrelling wave. If this is flow, then a steeper wave (anxiety) would cause her to fall, while a flatter wave (boredom) wouldn’t provide enough of a challenge. The flow state exists somewhere at the perfect balance between anxiety and boredom.
The intrinsically rewarding nature of flow activities accelerates the learning process, allowing you to quickly master whatever activity you’re performing. This would have been especially beneficial for our hunter-gather ancestors, who were likely in a flow state when hunting for food. Their skills would have matched the challenging survival pressures, allowing the successful hunters to catch their illusive prey.
In the modern world getting into flow state is very nuanced and personal, depending on interests and skills. It’s most often attributed to sports or a creative outlet (e.g. music, poetry, etc). When you are fully immersed in something that requires the proper balance of challenge and comfort, this flow state emerges. Steven Kotler, the Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, says that on average the challenge ought to be about 4% greater than the skills involved to produce flow.
Michael Jordan verbalized this feeling during Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Championship Finals: “Once you get into the moment, you know when you are there. Things start to move very slowly, you start to see the court very well.” You don’t have to be a top-performing athlete like MJ to have experienced what he is describing. We’ve all been there at one point – swept into an activity with such purpose and devotion that time seems to slow down.
In my own life I’ve felt the flow state primarily during athletic and creative endeavors. For me, snowboarding, scuba diving and squash, sports that I’ve been doing for years, often produce a flow state. The movements and strategy have become second nature, and I feel completely in my element when facing the proper challenge or opponent.
How about you, what gets you into flow? It’s helpful to identify and seek out your personal flow activities, since this is probably what you’ll enjoy doing the most and also be most capable at.
“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we feel both our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial considerations are met.” - Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman
Of course, you can’t hope to always be in flow. That would be unrealistic. But that feeling of immersion in the present moment is sadly so rare in modernity. Daily life brings a host of anxieties. Buzzing electronic notifications and other stimuli commonly detract from the present and can send your thoughts all over the place. The result is that modern humans spend an abnormal amount of time on the anxiety side of the graph.
Meditation can be used as a tool for training flow. As you learn to stabilize attention on the object of meditation (usually the breath), your mind becomes enraptured by the experience. This is called “concentrative absorption,” and it channels the same mental mechanisms as flow.
Suggested exercise: Simply check in with yourself throughout the day, becoming aware of when you are on one extreme side or another (anxiety or boredom) from the flow channel.
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Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman
George Mumford, The Mindful Athlete