We have all experienced it at one time or another — experiences when everything is synced perfectly and it feels effortless. It’s called being in the flow. The moments of total focus and engagement, where time flies and we are unaware of anything else around us. Athletes describe the experience as well, of being “in the flow’ during games, sometimes calling it “in the zone”. This immersion – “flow” – has actually become the subject of a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.
For decades, he explored people’s satisfaction in their everyday activities, finding that people report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing. In studies by Csikszentmihalyi and others, flow experiences led to positive emotions in the short term, and over the long term, people who more frequently experienced flow were generally happier.
There is an interesting combination required for people to get into a flow experience; the challenge of the activity must be enough to absorb the person, but not too easy or too hard. Also, flow cannot be forced, but by expanding interest and activities into multiple domains, there is a greater chance to enter the state of flow.
How do you know if you’re in flow? According to the research, Csikszentmihalyi and others found that flow experiences have several common characteristics.
You lose awareness of time. As filmmaker George Lucas puts it, talent is “a combination of something you love a great deal and something you can lose yourself in — something that you can start at 9 o’clock, look up from your work and it’s 10 o’clock at night.” Being in flow means that hours pass like minutes and when a person looks up from their activity, they are surprised by the amount of time that has passed.
You aren’t thinking about yourself. All thoughts of comfort, perceptions of others fall away when flow occurs. “Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.”
You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. The phenomenon of “monkey brain” does not happen in flow. Monkey brain is the part of the brain that keeps up a constant chatter about mundane matter like shopping lists, is the coffee maker off, activities that need to be done around the house. Flow is focused and shuts down monkey brain.
You have clear goals at each moment but aren’t focused on the goal line. The pleasure of the activity that gets us into flow IS the goal. While winning a game, completing a project, or other motivation may be important, it is not the ultimate during flow. This is the place where we find the activity to be the reward.
You are active. Flow activities are just that — active. Whether it is putting together a puzzle, creating a perfect soufflé, or conquering a mountain, the activity is primary and keeps us engaged. Yoga and meditation bring a different kind of flow that is not as active.
You work effortlessly. Flow is prolonged and focused activity, which should, in some circumstances, be exhausting or wearing, but when we are in flow, everything feels effortless and like the pieces are naturally falling into place.
You would like to repeat the experience. “In a 2005 study, presented at the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium, researchers reported that 60% of people hiking the full length of the Appalachian Trail reported experiencing flow, usually on a daily basis, and more than 80% expressed a desire to hike the trail again. In rating the things they enjoyed, the hikers said they enjoyed the experience and activity itself, as well as using their skills. In contrast, external factors, such as competition with others and the prestige of completing the trail, were rated dead last in what made the experience enjoyable.”
Being in the flow encourages us to want to repeat the experience. We seek out activities that are rewarding mentally and physically. By inviting flow more often into our lives, we can increase our everyday satisfaction, our happiness, and improve our life experiences on all levels.
What activity causes you to be in the flow?