What is flow?

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What is “flow”?  Probably the most common way to describe it is “being in the zone”.  Almost everyone has had this experience- being so engrossed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time, you feel like you don’t need to eat or maybe even sleep.  It’s a very satisfying and pleasurable state to be in, and it usually contributes to health and wellbeing.


Although flow has been identified throughout history and across cultures, it really became popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Csikszentmihalyi began researching and publishing about positive psychology, happiness, and creativity in the 70s.   He found that people who are intrinsically motivated, those who like to do things for their own sake, are more likely to experience the flow state, and ultimately lead a happier and more satisfying life.  


Csikszentmihalyi noted that people feel best when what they do is voluntary, (as opposed to doing what they are obliged to do or acting out of boredom).  When their goals align with their own desires and emotions, people are highly motivated.  Emotions and goals focus attention- this is why many coaches spend time doing “mindset” exercises with their clients: the feelings and images they generate help inspire people to take action toward the things they want in life.  


Attention and focus are, however, limited quantities, and a person has to train themselves to channel them.  This requires a lot more effort when it’s going against the grain of personal interest.


“Heart and mind are on the same page”


When people are in the flow state, there is no room in their consciousness for self doubt, distraction, conflicting thoughts or extraneous feelings.  Ego falls away, and the person cease to think about themselves.   Some describe extreme flow states as spiritual and even transformative.  The task at hand becomes all encompassing and absorbing, nothing else seems to matter.  

This state can only be accessed under certain conditions, which I will describe later, but the most important point is that it’s active.  Flow cannot be experienced in passive pursuits, such as watching TV or relaxing in the sunshine, pleasurable as these pastimes may be.   In flow, your skills are evenly matched with the challenges of your task, giving you the opportunity to use them to their utmost.   Later, you reap the satisfaction of having “done” something- performed, created, cooked, fixed, or experienced.  Because it takes effort to enter the flow state, I think it’s becoming more endangered- we lead busier and more stressful lives, with digital entertainment ever easier to access.  My hope is that once we realize how beneficial the flow state is, we will become more motivated to pursue it.