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A State of Flow

What makes a life worth living? What do we really need in order to be happy? If you have ever felt completely absorbed in something, you might have been experiencing a mental state that psychologists refer to as a state of flow. Achieving this state can help people feel greater enjoyment, energy, and involvement. The American Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is the name most linked to the study of flow, a highly focussed mental state that he says leads to happiness.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is perhaps most often associated with creativity. For example, a writer experiencing a state of flow may become so immersed in their work that hours fly by without them even noticing. The words flow easily and quickly. An artist might spend hours working on a painting, and emerge with a great deal of progress that seemed to fly by quickly.

Engaging in a sporting activity that is doable but presents a slight stretching of your abilities is another good way to achieve flow. Sometimes described by being “in the zone,” reaching this state of flow allows an athlete to experience a loss of self-consciousness and a sense of complete mastery of the performance. We can also achieve flow in our work when we are engaged in tasks where we are able to focus entirely on the project at hand. For example, a writer might experience this while working on a novel or a graphic designer might achieve flow while working on an illustration.


How can we achieve a state of flow?

Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics:

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

He found that the capacity to experience flow can differ from person to person.  People who are more prone to anxiety and self-criticism, which are conditions that can disrupt a flow state, can find it harder to get into the state.  Equally, when we are distracted (for example by our smart phones!) we can’t achieve flow. 

The nature of the challenge is important: If we feel that a challenge is bigger than our level of skill, one becomes anxious and stressed. On the other hand, when the level of skill exceeds the size of the challenge, one becomes bored and distracted. So balance is essential.

It takes practice – the more you practice it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences, which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life.

Here is a link to a TEDtalk given by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: GritHow to Develop GritHow to Build Resilience