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Flow

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Flow

Time flies when you're having fun! We have all probably used this phrase before, after a basketball game, musical performance, or even after a simple task like gardening. However, what is it that makes an activity so enjoyable that we are entirely in the moment to the point that we lose our sense of time? This experience is referred to as flow.

  • What is flow?
  • What are benefits of flow in psychology?
  • What is flow therapy?
  • What are examples of flow in psychology?

Definition of Flow in Psychology

We’ve all probably experienced flow at some point in our lives. Have you ever felt like you were in the zone on a school paper or felt this way at the game against your school rival? Initially coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is often described similarly, regardless of the task and age, class, gender, or culture.

Flow is the state in which a person is fully attentive to a task, functioning at their fullest capacity, and unaware of themselves or anything other than the task at hand.

This experience is highly enjoyable and often intrinsically motivated or autotelic.

Autotelic refers to an activity a person does that is rewarding in and of itself. In other words, someone completes the task for the enjoyment of it.

Conditions for Entering Flow

There are several conditions required for a person to enter a flow state.

  • First, one must set clear goals. These goals aid in structuring the activity to optimize attention and focus. It also adds more direction and purpose to the task at hand.
  • The second condition for entering flow is a balance between perceived skills and perceived challenges. The challenge of a task is what makes it fun and exciting. However, if it becomes too difficult and overwhelms our skills, we become anxious and fall out of the flow. On the other hand, if the task is not challenging enough, we become bored and disinterested in completing it. The balance between challenges and skills while in a state of flow is delicate and cannot lean one way or another.
  • The third condition for entering flow is immediate feedback. A key element to experiencing flow is that each moment informs and motivates the next. This type of motivation is called emergent motivation.

Emergent motivation is when each moment responds to what happened immediately before, rather than a preexisting state within a person or environment.

Activities with a clear goal and immediate feedback, such as sports or games, have a higher likelihood of reaching flow, but it can still be achieved with other activities.

Flow Scoreboard and Flow StudySmarterA scoreboard represents the emergent motivation of playing sports. Pixabay.com

Characteristics of Entering Flow

During Csikscentmihalyi’s studies, several subjects would report very similar experiences while in the flow. As a result, he was able to identify common characteristics of flow.

Experiences

  • Many reported a merging of action and awareness while in the flow. In other words, a person experiences a loss of self-consciousness with virtually no divide between them and the activity. One feels a part of the task they are completing.

  • The second characteristic of flow is a sense of control. Or, more accurately, a decreased worry about losing control. According to Csikscentmihalyi (2014), worrying about whether we will succeed or not "is one of the major sources of psychic entropy in everyday life, and its reduction during flow is one of the reasons such an experience becomes enjoyable and thus rewarding" (p. 231). While in a flow state, a person feels confident that no matter what situation or challenge comes up, they will be prepared to handle it.

  • The final common characteristic of flow is an altered sense of time. While in a flow state, a person is intensely focused on the present moment and the task at hand. This results in a distorted temporal experience where time seems to pass faster than usual. In some situations, such as sports, a person must be aware of time. However, this is not a consequence of boredom but rather a challenge that must be overcome while in the flow.

Concept of Flow in Positive Psychology

Researchers in this field of study focus on what improves a person's overall well-being, contentment, hope, optimism, creativity, courage, spirituality, and perseverance. Positive psychologists are interested in the flow because it is the point at which a person is experiencing peak satisfaction and enjoyment while fully in the present moment. Flow theory suggests that the complete absorption in what one does characterizes a good life.

In positive psychology, the focus is on what constitutes a good life. In other words, what makes people happy.

For example, one of the characteristics of flow is a loss of self-awareness. Carver and Scheier (1981) found that self-awareness forces a person to be aware of depressing inadequacies and discrepancies between a person's actual and ideal state. In other words, when we recognize that who we are is not who we want to be, this produces negative feelings. This could explain why flow is a highly rewarding experience because by being less aware of ourselves, we are less likely to experience these negative emotions.

Happiness and fulfillment

People tend to settle for a less optimal state of happiness or fulfillment in order to survive. When referring to their job or occupation, many people state that it just pays the bills but is usually not the most rewarding part of their lives. Entering flow is an enriching experience, so when boredom sets in, people often begin to seek "cheap thrills" to experience moments of happiness in the mundane (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). This is a common explanation for juvenile delinquency. For example, teenagers may find it appealing to vandalize a building to escape the dullness of school and home life.

Benefits of Flow in Positive Psychology

There are many benefits of flow positive psychology. Strati et al. (2011) state that "because flow states are enjoyable, they motivate individuals to continue developing skills and raising challenges to reenter flow" (p. 1058). Flow teaches a person the benefit of rising to a challenge. It encourages learning and development because it teaches a person how to build skills. While experiencing the flow, a person may also learn about themselves and what skills and talents they may have. This can result in a boost in self-esteem and self-confidence.

Following the Industrial Revolution, it became common for people to work more yet enjoy less (Wallace, 1978). As a result, more organized leisure activities have been developed to reduce the pressures and dreariness of life. However, what if, by understanding what activities activate flow in your life, you can find a productive and enjoyable career.

Consider asking the following questions from Buckingham and Clifton (2001):

  1. "What gives me pleasure?"
  2. "What makes me want to come back for more?"
  3. "What challenges do I look forward to?"
  4. "What tasks come easily to me?"

Flow Therapy in Psychology

Flow is a powerful state from which a person may learn a lot about themselves. Therefore, psychologists have considered ways in which flow can be used as a therapeutic measure in art therapy and mental health treatments.

Art Therapy

There is a strong connection between making art and the flow state. Voytilla (2006) found that many participants in art therapy reported that they experienced flow during the art-making process. While experiencing flow, people experience a high level of happiness. By optimizing a person's ability to reach flow, art therapists can ensure the greatest benefit for their clients. Art therapy can help boost self-esteem, happiness, and optimism.

Flow Art Therapy and Flow in Psychology StudySmarterEntering flow often occurs during art therapy. Freepik.com

Mental Health Treatments

People with mental health disorders can reach a state of flow regardless of their mental health diagnosis. Many researchers now consider ways in which the incorporation of flow into rehabilitation practices can support mental health treatments and social integration (Riva et al., 2016).

Mountain Therapy Intervention

Lanfranchi et al. (2011) observed 54 schizophrenic patients undergoing pharmacological treatment and were also involved in a rehabilitation program that incorporated mountain therapy. Mountain therapy interventions include mountain activities such as excursions, walks, and trekking with a supervised therapist and guides. When given a Flow Questionnaire, 76 percent of the participants identified structured leisure activities such as mountain therapy as primary sources of flow in their lives.

Examples of Flow in Psychology

A person can induce a flow state in virtually any activity. There are several traits a person can possess that may increase one's ability to enter flow and remain in it. These traits include a general curiosity, an interest in life, persistence, and low self-centeredness. Let's look at some examples of activities in which daily life can achieve flow.

Flow and Sports

Engaging in sports activities can be one of the easiest ways to enter the flow state. Due to the immediate feedback on performance, emergent motivation is often high. This is especially true in competitive sports such as basketball, football, hockey, gymnastics, or golf. However, one can achieve flow in non-competitive sports, such as backpacking, fishing, cycling, or canoeing.

Examples of Flow: Arts

Many artists and musicians report experiencing flow anytime they practice their craft. When Csikszentmihalyi was developing the concept of flow, he was particularly interested in how artists and musicians could create for hours and hours, completely losing track of time. Painting, sculpturing, calligraphy, pottery, composing music, or practicing an instrument are all common activities that activate flow.

Flow and Gaming

Gaming also offers a high level of emergent motivation. One may find flow while playing a game due to the immediate rewards that follow passing each level. There still must be a delicate balance between a person's skill and the challenges faced while gaming. If the game is too easy, you may become bored and stop playing. However, if a game is far too difficult for your skill level, you're likely to throw the controller out of frustration.

Flow Boy Gaming StudySmarterThis person experienced flow while gaming. Freepik.com

Flow and Hobbies

Even activities that may not provide an obvious emergent motivation, such as gaming and sports, can induce flow. Emergent motivation is still present but in less conventional ways. For example, one may enter a flow state while gardening when harvesting their crop or cutting their flowers. Or, while reading a book, one may enter a flow state as they read more and discover more mysteries in the storyline. Even while organizing, one may enter a flow state as the final product, and the process itself can be incredibly rewarding.

Flow at the Work Place

Some days at work may feel as though time is dragging along. However, there are those days when one may feel as though the day flew by. In these moments, a flow state may have been achieved. For example, a barista may enter a flow state while getting through the morning rush, each moment informs the next, and the completion of each drink is a reward. Even working a cash register can also induce flow, as one is completely focused and in the zone ringing up orders and providing change as quickly as possible.

Flow and Learning

Have you ever learned how to solve a new math problem and felt so focused and excited about learning something new? Or maybe while studying for an exam, you felt completely in the moment and focused and felt extreme happiness every time you answered a flashcard correctly? It is possible that in each situation, a flow state was achieved. However, to achieve flow while learning, it is essential to have clear goals and for the challenge to match one's skills.

Flow - Key takeaways

  • Flow is the state in which a person is fully attentive to a task, functioning at their fullest capacity, and unaware of themselves or anything else other than the task at hand.
  • The flow conditions are clear goals, a balance between perceived skills and perceived challenges, and immediate feedback.
  • Emergent motivation is when each moment responds to what happened immediately, rather than a preexisting state within a person or environment.
  • Flow is characterized by a merging of action and awareness, a sense of control, and an altered sense of time.
  • Flow teaches a person the benefit of rising to a challenge. Flow also encourages learning and development as well as self-esteem.

Frequently Asked Questions about Flow

Flow is the state in which a person is fully attentive to a task, functioning at their fullest capacity, and unaware of themselves or anything else other than the task at hand. 

Since flow must involve some sort of challenge, a person will experience short-term stress, the good kind of stress. However, long-term or chronic stress can keep someone from accessing a flow state at all. 

Flow is can be measured by interviews or questionnaires. Most commonly, researchers use an experience sampling method to measure flow.

The necessary components of flow are clear goals, a balance between perceived skills and perceived challenges, and immediate feedback. 

Examples of activities in which one may enter a flow state are sports, arts, gaming, hobbies, work, and learning.

Final Flow Quiz

Question

____________ refers to an activity that a person does that is rewarding in and of itself. In other words, someone completes the task for the sake of enjoyment in completing the task.

Show answer

Answer

Autotelic

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not a required condition for the flow state?

Show answer

Answer

Easy and challenge-free goals

Show question

Question

_______________ is when each moment responds to what happened immediately before, rather than a preexisting state within a person or environment.

Show answer

Answer

Emergent motivation

Show question

Question

What are the 3 characteristics of flow?


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Answer

1) Altered sense of time

2) Sense of control

3) Merging of action and awareness.

Show question

Question

Why is it easy to experience flow while playing sports?

Show answer

Answer

Due to the immediate feedback on performance, emergent motivation is high.

Show question

Question

What is flow?


Show answer

Answer

Flow is the state in which a person is fully attentive to a task, functioning at their fullest capacity, and unaware of themselves or anything else other than the task at hand.

Show question

Question

True or False? It is possible for someone to experience flow while gardening. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Why are positive psychologists interested in flow?


Show answer

Answer

Positive psychologists are interested in flow because it is the point at which a person is experiencing peak satisfaction and enjoyment while fully in the present moment.

Show question

Question

True or False? People rarely settle for a less optimal state of happiness or fulfillment in order to survive.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Which of the following is a benefit of experiencing flow?


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Answer

All of these are benefits of experiencing flow.

Show question

Question

True or False? People with mental health disorders can, in fact, reach a state of flow regardless of their mental health diagnosis.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following can cause someone to come out of the flow state?

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Answer

All of these can cause someone to come out of the flow state.

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Question

Who first coined the term "flow"?

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Answer

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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Question

What did Lanfranchi et al. (2011) find?


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Answer

When given a Flow Questionnaire, 76 percent of the schizophrenic patients identified structured leisure activities such as mountain therapy as primary sources of flow in their lives.

Show question

Question

What was the significance of Voytilla (2006)?

Show answer

Answer

Voytilla (2006) found that many participants in art therapy reported that they experienced flow during the art-making process.  

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