Flow (psychology)

From New World Encyclopedia
boy, painting a model

Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the concept of flow has been found valuable in Positive psychology, and has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

The concept of the state of flow is similarly found in the traditions of the Far Eastern thoughts, such as Zen and Daoism. The concept is expressed in those traditions as a state of total oneness of mind-body, the oneness of the self and the world.

Many other terms and idioms exist for this mental state: To be "on the ball," "in the zone," or "in the groove." Flow can also be associated with such concepts as play and joy, which are fundamental to human existence.


In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi outlined his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being, colloquially, "in the zone" or "in the groove." The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

Did you know?
In Positive psychology "Flow" is a state of absorption in an activity and an intrinsically rewarding experience

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as

being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.[1]

To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur.

The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person's capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train and improve attention.

In short; flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.

Components of flow

Csikszentmihalyi identified the following as accompanying an experience of flow:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities)
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it)
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness
  4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed)
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult)
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging[2]

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.


Flow is so named because during Csikszentmihalyi's 1975 interviews, several people described their "flow" experiences using the metaphor of a current carrying them along. The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase, "to go with the flow," which means "to conform."

Group flow

Csikszentmihalyi suggests several ways in which a group could work together so that each individual member could achieve flow. The characteristics of such a group include:

  • Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts; but no tables, therefore primarily work standing and moving
  • Playground design: Charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness (here also craziness has a place), safe place (here all may say what is otherwise only thought), result wall, open topics
  • Parallel, organized working
  • Target group focus
  • Advancement of existing one (prototyping)
  • Increase in efficiency through visualization
  • Existence of differences among participants represents an opportunity, rather than an obstacle


Applications suggested by Csikszentmihalyi versus other practitioners

It is worth noting that only Csikszentmihalyi seems to have published suggestions for extrinsic applications of the Flow concept, such as design methods for playgrounds to elicit the Flow experience. Other practitioners of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow concept, generally those working under the umbrella of Positive psychology, have focused on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement, or self-help. Reinterpretations of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow process exist to improve performance in areas as diverse as business[3] piano improvisation, sport psychology,[4] and standup comedy.[5]

Religion and spirituality

Csikszentmihalyi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western psychology, but as he himself readily acknowledged, he was most certainly not the first to describe the concept of Flow or develop applications based on the concept.

For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of mind-body and the self and the world as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories, tested, and refined through spiritual practices.

The phrase, "being at one with things" is a metaphor of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply concepts similar to Flow to aid their mastery of art forms, including, in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Aikido, Kendo, and Ikebana.

The idea of overcoming duality of self and object is a key theme of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert Pirsig (1974). "When you're not dominated by feelings of separateness from what you're working on, then you can be said to 'care' about what you're doing. That is what caring really is: 'a feeling of identification with what one's doing.' When one has this feeling then you also see the inverse side of caring, quality itself."[6]


In education, there is the concept of overlearning, which seems to be an important factor in this technique, in that Csikszentmihalyi (1990) states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualizing the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions.


The concept of "being in the zone" during an athletic performance fits within Csikszentmihalyi's description of the Flow experience, and theories and applications of "being in the zone" and its relationship with athletic competitive advantage are topics studied in the field of sport psychology. Musicians, especially improvisational soloists can experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument.

Roy Palmer suggested that "being in the zone" may also influence movement patterns as better integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions improves coordination.[7] Many athletes describe the effortless nature of their performance whilst achieving personal bests.

The legendary soccer player, Pelé, described his experience of being in the zone: "I felt a strange calmness … a kind of euphoria. I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically."[8]

Another example was given by Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix felt like driving the car beyond his limits. "I was already on pole, […] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more."[9]

Video games

The same concept of flow is used in video games. After mastering the game's learning curve or sometimes even completely at random, the player may experience an increase of skill for no determined amount of time. Many (or all) key aspects of flow mentioned above are easily identifiable here. One of the most notable genres for getting the player "in the zone" is the music simulation genre, such as Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. The player may notice a sudden increase in ease of a song, lasting for one or many songs in succession.


  1. John Geirland, Go With The Flow: According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, great Web sites are not about navigating content, but staging experience. Retrieved December 10, 2007.
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1975, ISBN 978-0875892610), 72.
  3. floweory.com, MSc Dissertation: An exploration of the importance of website usability from a business perspective Retrieved December 16, 2007.
  4. Susan A. Jackson, Welcome to Body and Mind Flow. Retrieved December 16, 2007.
  5. Basil White, Embed Sensory Commands Into Your Writing. Retrieved December 16, 2007.
  6. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance an Inquiry into Values (New York: Morrow, 1974, ISBN 0688002307), 290.
  7. Roy Palmer, Zone Mind, Zone Body: How to Break Through to New Levels of Fitness and Performance - by Doing Less! (Ecademy Press, 2006, 978-1905823062).
  8. Pele and Robert L. Fish, My Life and the Beautiful Game: The Autobiography of Soccer's Greatest Star (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-1602391963).
  9. Peter Orosz, Ayrton Senna On The Very Edge Jalopnik (January 20, 2010). Retrieved July 12, 2012.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1975. ISBN 978-0875892610
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990. ISBN 0060920432
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996. ISBN 0060928204
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1998. ISBN 0465024117 (a popular exposition emphasizing technique)
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN 014200409X
  • Langer, Ellen J. Mindfulness. Da Capo Lifelong Books, 1989. ISBN 0201523418
  • Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Penguin-Putnam, 1990. ISBN 0874776317
  • Palmer, Roy. Zone Mind, Zone Body: How to Breakthrough to New Levels of Fitness and Performance—by Doing Less!. Ecademy Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1905823062
  • Pele and Robert L. Fish. My Life and the Beautiful Game: The Autobiography of Soccer's Greatest Star. Skyhorse Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1602391963
  • Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance an Inquiry into Values. New York: Morrow, 1974. ISBN 0688002307
  • Warren, Jeff. "The Zone." In The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. Random House Canada, 2007. ISBN 978-0679314080

External links

All links retrieved April 14, 2017.


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