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The Psychology of Optimal Experience: Flow

Everyone I talk to knows exactly what Flow is – the experience of being so deeply involved in something (tennis, writing a brief, creating a software interface) that everything else melts away and you are in this wonderful state of high performance and creativity.

The reason I’ve been talking about Flow with friends and clients is I just completed listening to the audiobook “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihali.

Experiencing the Flow state increases self esteem, decreases stress, equips us to take on new challenges, and makes us happy.  More Flow equals more happiness.

Csikszentmihali identifies eight characteristics of Flow.

  1. We know what to do.  We understand the rules and clearly understand the goals.
  2. There is feedback available to us that we are aware of at every moment.  The feedback serves as a gauge to let us know whether we are getting closer to the goal.  The feedback keeps us focused, allows us to course correct, and serves to increase our concentration.
  3. There is an edgy balance of the challenge being matched to our skill set.  Flow is thwarted by a challenge that is too easy or too hard.  Too easy and we become bored.  Too difficult and we become overwhelmed.
  4. Flow gives us a feeling of focus and concentration – a sort of single-mindedness.  Fragmented attention disappears, and we can achieve more because we are more effective when we’re focused.  The focus that comes with Flow is easy and infuses us with a kind of energy and inner harmony.
  5. Everyday frustrations disappear when we are in a Flow state.  They are no longer top of mind or breaking in to our consciousness.  Our mind doesn’t wander.  And this contributes to a greater sense of well being as Flow gives us a respite from our worries and life’s irritants.  Csikszentmihali note that Flow is an escape forward – the opposite of escape backward where we seek ways to dull ourselves (addictions).  When we escape forward we are energized and want to take on new challenges and learn new skills.
  6. Even though Flow is about being on that balanced edge, Flow gives us the feeling of being in control of our life.  Our actions and experience provide a sense of happiness and optimism and action versus being stuck, thwarted and waiting for change.
  7. We lose the ego in a state of flow.  All self-consciousness and defensiveness are moved off the brains center stage and results in a deeper transcendence.  When the Flow experience is over and we reflect back on it, our self esteem is increased, and the self returns with a feeling of being stronger than before.
  8. Flow changes our perception of time.  We are lost in it and it can manifest as both a speeding up (time flying) and a slowing down (we comprehend everything in sort of connected way – those of you who follow football have heard experts talk about players reaching a new level of performance because “the game has slowed down” for them.)

I was talking about this with a client yesterday and her reaction was “I know exactly what you’re talking about.  And I feel as though I have had any Flow all year.  I need to find a way to make time for it.”

Yes.  We all do.  And just being aware is the first step in moving towards optimal experience and, this is the wonderful part, happiness.

How are you doing with your Flow ratio in life?


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