Flow – Energized Focus
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.
Buzz terms for this or similar mental states include: to be in the moment, present, in the zone, on a roll, wired in, in the groove, on fire, in tune, centered, or singularly focused.
Conditions for flow
One cannot force oneself to enter flow. It just happens. A flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes.
There are three conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state:
- One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
In 1997, Csíkszentmihályi published the graph above. This graph depicts the relationship between the perceived challenges of a task and one’s perceived skills. This graph illustrates one further aspect of flow: it can only occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge (above the center point) and requires above-average skills (to the right of the center point). The center of this graph (where the sectors meet) represents one’s average levels of challenge and skill. The further from the center an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being (whether it is flow or anxiety or boredom or relaxation).
The autotelic personality
Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow more often than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality.
It has not yet been documented whether people with an autotelic personality are truly more likely to achieve a flow state. One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) did find that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for “high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth” than those without an autotelic personality. It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to enter the flow state.