Skill. Finesse. Efficiency of movement. There is speed and power. All of his resources are brought to bear in this challenge; he is focused. But he is relaxed, and there is a seeming effortlessness in execution. He is “in the zone.” He gives no thought to his many years of preparation that led to this moment of excellence. He’s not self-consciously examining his actions. His awareness is devoted to the game. He is not distracted by extraneous thoughts. He is absorbed in the here and now. Mind and body are in harmony. Thought and action are one. Creativity, ingenuity, mastery, and strength naturally emerge. He moves with grace; time seems to slow and now we zoom in on his hand moving swiftly through the air with guileless confidence – and then the sound of impact!
Who knew chess could be this exciting!!
Okay, so the description above sounds more like it’s talking about an active, physical sport.* With small changes it could also apply to a wide variety of activities where people are so involved in what they’re doing that they become fully engrossed in it.
A well-known research psychologist has spent most of his life studying this state, which he calls “flow.” His name is Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (he explains facetiously that it’s pronounced “chicks send me high”), former chair of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago. He says flow is engagement with what you’re doing, wanting to continue in the activity for its own sake, and “the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered.” A person can be involved in sports, art, games, hobbies, work…. Almost anything active can potentially lead to it, but not normally something passive like watching TV.
Flow can happen when you’re “really into” what you’re doing. It also has positive benefits. When you’re in a flow state, you’re not normally thinking “I’m happy doing this” or “I love this,” because you’re too focused on the activity. Afterward, though, you might think something like: “That was fun.”
In fact, Csikszentmihalyi came upon the concept of flow as a result of researching the question “What is enjoyment?” He started by studying people who did activities for enjoyment even when they weren’t rewarded with money or fame. They were motivated by the quality of the experience they had while they were engaged in the activity. This optimal experience didn’t come when they were relaxing, or taking drugs or alcohol, or consuming luxuries. Instead, it often consisted of something difficult, risky, or even painful. It usually stretched the person’s capacity, provided a challenge to his or her capabilities, and involved some discovery or novelty.
Nine elements of flow
Csikszentmihalyi identified nine elements of flow that he saw repeatedly in his research:
1. There are clear goals every step of the way. In many everyday situations, there are contradictory demands and it’s sometimes quite unclear what should occupy our attention. But in a flow experience, you have a clear purpose and a good grasp of what to do next.
2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions. When you’re in flow, you know how well you’re doing.
3. There is a balance between challenges and skills. If a challenge is too demanding compared to your skill level, you get frustrated. If it’s too easy, you get bored. In a flow experience, there is a pretty good match between your abilities and the demands of the situation. You feel engaged by the challenge, but not overwhelmed.
4. Action and awareness are merged. People are often thinking about something that happened – or might happen – in another time or place. But in flow, you’re concentrated on what you’re doing.
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness. Because you’re absorbed in the activity, you’re only aware of what’s relevant to the task at hand, and you don’t think about unrelated things. By being focused on the activity, unease that can cause anxiety and depression is set aside.
6. There is no worry of failure. In a state of flow, you’re too involved to be concerned about failing. You just don’t think about failure. You know what has to be done and you just do it.
7. Self-consciousness disappears. People often spend a lot of mental energy monitoring how they appear to others. In a flow state, you’re too involved in the activity to care about protecting your ego. You might even feel connected to something larger than yourself. Paradoxically, the experience of letting go of the self can strengthen it.
8. The sense of time becomes distorted. Time flies when you’re really engaged. On the other hand, time may seem to slow down at the moment of executing some action for which you’ve trained and developed a high degree of skill.
9. The activity becomes “autotelic” (an end in itself, done for it’s own sake). Some activities are done for their own sake, for the enjoyment an experience provides, like most art, music, or sports. Other activities, which are done for some future purpose or goal – like things you have to do as part of your job – may only be a means to an end. But some of these goal-oriented activities can also become ends in themselves, and enjoyed for their own sake. Csikszentmihalyi concludes by saying that “in many ways, the secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible.”
Think about things you’ve done that had some of these characteristics. Then do more of those kinds of things!
Enrich your life by making a commitment and a concrete plan to put more flow – an optimal experience of engagement – in your work, in your leisure (cut down on the passive stuff!), and ultimately in your life.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books. (a how-to book with practical applications)
*No, I’m not claiming chess is a sport. But if it were, that would make me captain of the varsity team and MVP all three years — a jock!