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What is being in a flow state? Learn how to live an optimal experience

Have you ever paid attention to how cats drink their water? It’s an interesting matter: cats always prefer to drink from flowing water, which is why there are devices specially designed for domestic felines to do so. A lot of feline wisdom is present in this gesture. What flows is alive, moving, and transforming as it happens, like the river mentioned by the pre-Socratic Heraclitus in his aphorisms.

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist born in 1934 in Fiume (a city that used to belong to Italy but is today Rijeka, the largest port in Croatia), was not the first to notice the importance of flow in human existence, but he was the one who coined the term in its English form: “flow.”

Flow designates a state in which we do something that makes us “focus” completely and involves all our attention, abilities, psychic, and physical energy: the ego disappears, and so do chronological time, distracting thoughts, physical discomforts, hunger, and tiredness.

Otherwise, it is called “the zone.” When you are in Flow, nothing else exists. No reward is sought: what allows us to flow is done without an “external” reason to justify it or encourage it. Playing (as children play), practicing a sport, listening, reading, composing or playing music, dancing, climbing, any hobby, any creative task that demands our effort and full attention, that’s where Flow unfolds. To flow is to leave a door always open to enter into well-being, into a life with meaning, into happiness.

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Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi died in 2021 at the age of 87. In addition to being a psychologist and researcher, he painted, played chess, and climbed. He was the child  of Hungarian parents – his father was a diplomat and had been posted to Fiume where Mihaly was born – so his mother tongue was Hungarian. Like many of his contemporaries, he lived through the horrors of war, and that is what he discussed in his famous Ted Talk of 2004, which has more than 7.5 million views to date.“I grew up in Europe,” he said, “World War II caught up with me between the ages of 7 and 10. There, I saw that few of the adults I knew had been able to withstand the tragedies the war had caused them. So I became interested in understanding how these people had been able to live worthwhile lives, even after having endured the war.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who coined the term Flow, a state of mind that makes us focus completely
<em>Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Credits Association for Psychological Science<em>

In that same Ted Talk, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi shared that when he was very young, in Zurich, he had no money to go to the movies, but instead, found a free talk about flying saucers interesting. “Instead of little green men, the speaker talked about the psyche of Europeans and how, traumatized by the war, he had them project flying saucers into the sky. He also talked about how the mandalas of the ancient Hindu religion were a type of projection that could be taken as an attempt to regain some sense, after the chaos of war. That very interesting man was Carl Jung, whose name or work I ignored until then.”

After arriving in the U.S. with only 50 dollars in his pocket, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi settled in Chicago and worked in a hotel while obtaining his GED (General Educational Development) tests, which allowed him to go to college to study psychology. But he did it in line almost opposite to the theories of that time. Instead of focusing on the profound reasons for human suffering or worry, he dedicated himself to investigating the roots of happiness.

A few years later, Martin Seligman, creator of Positive Psychology, would do something similar when, after many decades of studying depressed people, he asked himself the inverse question: Why are there many people who – even though they go through traumatic or tremendously painful experiences – do not become depressed?

One of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s first relevant findings was proving that just as the lack of basic material resources (housing, food, work) produces unhappiness, the increase in material resources is not synonymous with happiness.

“As soon as basic problems are solved (…) new needs are felt – he writes in his famous book “Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (1990) – . Money and power are the rising expectations and while our level of health and comfort keeps increasing, the feeling of well-being we expected to get from it keeps receding in the distance (…). The problem exists when people are so obsessed with what they want to achieve that they no longer obtain pleasure from the present.”

Flow state and the optimal experience

Mihaly presents an important concept within his work: that of optimal experience. “The best moments of our lives,” he writes, “are not passive, receptive, or relaxed (…) The best moments usually happen when the body or mind has reached its limit in a voluntary effort to achieve something difficult and worthwhile. An optimal experience is something we make happen.” For a child, putting the last block with his trembling hand on the tower he built; for a violinist, mastering a complicated passage; for a swimmer, improving his/her times.

Throughout his studies, the Hungarian-American psychologist tried to understand as accurately as he could how people felt when they enjoyed themselves the most, and why. He interviewed hundreds of artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons, chess players… and also workers in common trades, such as an American welder named Joe to whom he dedicated several pages of the aforementioned book.

Woman doing gymnastics fully focused on her training

To “measure” the quality of the subjective experience, he developed a method that consisted of giving a pager to each of those who participated in the sampling and for them to write down how they felt each time the device rang. At the end of the week, each one made a sort of “story/experience” of those days. They would fill out two pages of a booklet to describe what they were doing and how they felt the moment the pager beeped. They were asked to rate on a 10-point scale how challenged they felt at that moment and how many skills they thought they used.

The psychologist and his team collected thousands of these testimonies from people of different continents, age, sex, and cultural backgrounds, and the “optimal experiences” were described in very similar terms. During his famous Ted Talk, Csíkszentmihályi recounted that when interviewing a composer, the musician told him that when he composed and things went well, he reached a state of “ecstasy”, a word that comes from the Greek and means “to get out of oneself”. Ecstasy, then, is essentially moving into an alternative reality.

“When we think about the civilizations considered pinnacles of human culture, such as the Chinese, Greek, Hindu, Mayan or Egyptian, all we know about them is in terms of their ‘ecstasies’, not their daily life. We see their temples, their arenas… Instead, a composer only needs a piece of paper on which to write some musical notes and imagine sounds that did not exist before. In that moment, he reaches such a different reality that he feels as though he doesn’t exist; his needs, his tiredness, his hunger disappear…existence is suspended. I heard the same while interviewing poets, dancers… A poet once told me that writing was like opening a door and floating in the sky.”

Martin Seligman, the “father of Positive Psychology” who is 81 years old, still researching and teaching in Princeton, and is an accomplished bridge player, also speaks of this “alternative reality” accessed in Flow. “It’s a common entertainment among older Americans. The average age of those who participate in tournaments is 70, a time in life when physical aches and pains are common. However, none of them complain about anything while playing. They are completely absorbed in what they are doing, they forget about everything else.”

Flow can also be found in daily life activities and at work. Despite the fact that in Western and modern cultures especially, work has “bad press” and is associated with effort that does not always receive the expected reward, in Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s research people often “flow” when faced with challenging and demanding situations in their work tasks. Routine, conflicts with colleagues and superiors, and burnout, especially in higher positions, are the most common problems that hinder the experience.

The 7 characteristics of a flow state

Entering Flow is an automatic process that results from a delicate balance from the invitation to excel without feeling frustrated. The state of Flow is reached when performing an activity that poses new challenges and requires high motivation and concentration. If the task is too easy, apathy and boredom will appear; anxiety will appear if it is more complicated than what can be achieved.

Csíkszentmihályi himself explained in an interview with the New York Times: “People seem to concentrate better when the demands placed on them are a little more rigorous than usual and they feel able to give more than they usually do. Little or no demand bores them; a demand that is far beyond their capabilities makes them anxious. Flow occurs in a delicate zone between boredom and anxiety.”

Regardless of the level of education or culture, there are 8 characteristics that occur during “the zone”:

  1. Completely involved in what you are doing, focused, concentrated
  2. A sense of ecstasy, or being outside of everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity, knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing it
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable, that our skills are adequate to the task
  5. A sense of serenity, no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
  6. Timelessness, thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes
  7. Intrinsic motivation, whatever produces flow becomes its own reward
  8. Autotelic experiences are performed for their own sake. They are intrinsically motivated behaviors that trigger the flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
Woman training

A flow state entails work

Flow is not only a state of mind; it is also accompanied by physiological changes. A study of Swedish classical pianists showed that being in Flow improves heart rate, stabilizes blood pressure, and activates the facial muscles that enable smiling.

In the flowing brain, the caudate nucleus is activated, which is involved in memory, learning, movement coordination, and motivation, among other functions. By connecting the limbic system with the frontal cortex, it transforms and links cognitive information to emotional meaning.

But it’s not always so easy to get into and stay in “the zone”. Steven Kotler, American writer, journalist, and high-performance researcher and director of the Flow Research Collective, admits that this state is not something we can always control. “Flow is a happy accident, the most we can do is be more likely to experience it,” says Kotler.

Mindfulness, a method of stress reduction created by American physician Jon Kavat-Zinn – who transferred teachings from Zen, Yoga, and Buddhism to Western science – can allow states close to Flow, although Flow is characterized by the fact that it occurs when performing an activity that requires effort and skill, and mindfulness, on the other hand, does not necessarily demand concentration on a given activity.

“The concepts are similar but the biggest difference is that mindfulness is a state of mind that can be reached by anyone at any time: it is not unusual and brings many of the same benefits as Flow,” explains Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and an expert in mindfulness, creativity and belief.

“Mindfulness is a state that can be reached in daily life, if for example we are able to find new aspects in the people who live with us or on the way home, or if we are able to listen to whoever is conversing with us, without thinking that we already know what they are going to tell us. Once we recognize that we don’t know something, the attitude changes: everything becomes more interesting, and if it’s interesting, it’s more attractive,” adds Langer.

Among the daily activities that can make us get into Flow, experts mention listening to music – especially one that has no lyrics that may prompt us to analyze it – playing video games, practicing any hobby, such as dancing, playing, climbing, writing, singing, making music, playing chess, or playing a sport.

Kotler proposes a three-step formula for more Flow in life: 1) identify what activity you enjoy the most 2) set aside 90 minutes of each day at the time when your brain is most “alive” (there are day people and night people) to perform the task you consider most important of the day 3) set aside a recovery time each day, completely separate from work and technology, such as spending time with loved ones, walking the dog, watching TV.

For Robert Vallerand, researcher at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada about the psychology of passions, a harmonious passion – in which the person chooses to commit to an activity he/she loves – is a direct path to flowing and experiencing positive emotions, well-being, physical and emotional health, concentration, attention and better performance. On the contrary, an obsessive passion hinders the whole process, since the person is not the one who controls the passion but the other way around, and is not able to make it compatible with other activities or interests in his or her life.

There is no magic key to accessing Flow. But cultivating a passion that demands energy, effort, organization and concentration without becoming an obsession is a real possibility to open oneself to a state that erases time, worries, psychic and physical pains, and reality as we usually live it. It is worth accepting the challenge.

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