Flow (psychology)

Flow (psychology)

Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields. [ [http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&lr=&cites=12334528761431366038 Citations of Csíkszentmihályi's 1990 book about flow on Google Scholar] ]

Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be "on the ball", "in the zone", or "in the groove".

Components of flow

Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following as accompanying an experience of flow:
# "Clear goals" (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).
# "Concentrating and focusing", a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
# A "loss of the feeling of self-consciousness", the merging of action and awareness.
# "Distorted sense of time", one's subjective experience of time is altered.
# Direct and immediate "feedback" (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
# "Balance between ability level and challenge" (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
# A sense of personal "control" over the situation or activity.
# The activity is "intrinsically rewarding", so there is an effortlessness of action.
# People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, "action awareness merging".cite book|last=Csíkszentmihályi|first=Mihály|title=Beyond Boredom and Anxiety|publisher=Jossey-Bass|location=San Francisco, CA|date=1975|isbn=0875892612]

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.


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

Group flow

Csíkszentmihályi 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; thus work primarily 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 Csíkszentmihályi versus other practitioners

It is worth noting that only Csíkszentmihályi 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 Csíkszentmihályi's Flow concept focus on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement or self-help. Reinterpretations of Csíkszentmihályi's Flow process exist to improve performance in areas as diverse as business [http://www.flowtheory.com/] , piano improvisation, sport psychology [http://www.hms.uq.edu.au/flow/] , and standup comedy [http://basilwhite.com/comedyworkshop/#flow] .


In education, there is the concept of overlearning which seems to be an important factor in this technique, in that Csíkszentmihályicite book|last=Csíkszentmihályi|first=Mihály|title=Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience'|publisher=Harper and Row|location=New York|date=1990|isbn=0-06-092043-2] states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualizing the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions.


Musicians, especially improvisational soloists can experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument.


The concept of "being in the zone" during an athletic performance fits within Csíkszentmihályi'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. [cite web|url=http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol1Iss3/Empirical_Zone.htm|title=The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports|author=Janet A Young, Michelle D Pain|accessdate=2008-05-08|journal=Athletic Insight]
Timothy Gallwey's influential works on the "inner game" of sports such as golf and tennis described the mental coaching and attitudes which were required to get into the zone and so fully internalise mastery of the sport. [cite book|title=Inner Tennis - Playing the Game|year=1976|author=Timothy Galwey]

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

The Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix gives a prime example. "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 realised 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."

This is exactly what Csikszentmihalyi means in regard to flow. It is a perfect example of optimal experience and the uses of talent. When challenges and skills are simultaneously above average, a broadly positive experience emerges. [Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1988) Optimal Experience Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. 323.] Simms threw 22 completions out of 25 attempts for 268 yards and many still say it was the best game ever by a quarterback on the grandest stage. He had maximum concentration. Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter state that concentration is a vital element in becoming completely involved with the present. So one must concentrate to achieve flow. Also a sense of control is vital to earning a flow state. Control, however, seems simultaneously effortless and masterful. Control and concentration also manifest with a transcendence of normal awareness. One aspect of this transcendence is the loss of self-consciousness. [Hunter, Jeremy and Csikszentmihalyi (2000)”The Phenomenology of Body-Mind: The Contrasting Cases of Flow in Sports and Contemplation. Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 11 No. 3-4 p 15. ] Simply put, an athlete’s focus is so intense and play elevated, they’re unstoppable.

Religion and spirituality

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

For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science.

The phrase "being at one with things" is a metaphor of Csíkszentmihályi'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.


Game designers, particularly video and computer games, benefit from integration of Flow principles into gameplay design. [Chen, J. (2008) Flow in Games. Extracted 05/16/2008 from http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/introduction.htm]

Professions and work

Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state when developing in an undistracted state. [Rollinson, W. (2008) Email - the curse of productivity. Extracted 05/16/2008 from http://blogs.msdn.com/imtesty/archive/2008/05/01/email-the-curse-of-productivity.aspx] Stock market operators often use the term "in the pipe" to describe the psychological state of flow when trading during high volume days and market corrections.

See also

* Creativity
* Hyperfocus
* Imagination
* Improvisation
* Mindfullness
* Motivation
* Mushin
* Play
* Prayer
* Spirituality
* Taoism
* Trance




* Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996). "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention". New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092820-4
* Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1998). "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life". Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02411-4 (a popular exposition emphasizing technique)
* Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (2003). "Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning". New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-200409-X
* Citation
last = Egbert
first = Joy
title = A Study of Flow Theory in the Foreign Language Classroom
journal = The Modern Language Journal
volume = 87
issue = 4
pages = 499-518
date = 2003
year = 2003
* Jackson, Susan A. & Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1999). "Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances". Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers. ISBN 0-88011-876-8
* Citation
last = Mainemelis
first = Charalampos
title = When the Muse Takes It All: A Model for the Experience of Timelessness in Organizations
journal = The Academy of Management Review
volume = 26
issue = 4
pages = 548-565
date = 2001
year = 2001
* Citation
last = Shainberg
first = Lawrence
newspaper = New York Times Magazine
year = 1989
date = 1989-04-09
url = http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE0DD1E3FF93AA35757C0A96F948260&scp=1&sq=pele+%22felt+a+strange+calmness%22&st=nyt

External links

* [http://www.bodyandmindflow.com/resources.html Flow Resources] Designed to promote understanding of flow experiences in sport and other physical activity or performance domains.
* [http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/abstract.htm flOw] A flash based implementation of flow theory and immersion in a game format
* [http://www.flowtheory.com/ FlowTheory.com] An MSc dissertation exploring the importance of website usability from a business perspective; contains a section on flow
* [http://kevinchiu.org/kevin_chiu_procrastination.pdf Solving Procrastination] an application of Flow to solving procrastination by Kevin Chiu
* [http://www.archetypewriting.com/articles/articles_ck/muse_block_ckFlowArticle.htm Archetype Writing] The Right-Brain/Left-Brain Myth and Flow looks at the neurology behind flow.

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