What is Flow?

The psychological concept of flow.

Chances are, at some point in your life, you have experienced flow.  Athletes call it being “in the zone”, and Buddhist monks refer to it as a “heightened state of consciousness”.  Flow describes those times where you get lost in the moment, becoming so involved in a task that you lose some sense of awareness of yourself and time.

As a nurse, I typically encounter flow when I succeed in tackling complicated topics with patients.  In these highly engaging visits, it sometimes feels like a hour has gone by only to see it has been only a few minutes.  Flow produces such a powerful therapeutic effect, that both the patient and myself react to it positively.  We both finish the appointment in awe, with the patient often feeling like I “blew their mind” and myself feeling highly skilled and effective.

What exactly happens psychologically when we experience flow?  And, why is this state of heightened consciousness inherently peaceful and relaxing?  These mysteries are at the center of new moment in psychology (called “positive psychology”) which aims to better understand human flourishing and positive emotional states.

Flow was first described by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who in 2002 wrote a popular book on the subject and became well-known for this research in the realm of positive psychology.  Through Mihaly’s work, psychology discovered one of the first underlying mechanisms to happiness and relaxation.  The concept of flow was exciting because it appeared to be universal across all cultures.

What Produces Flow?

Over a decade later, extensive research has been conducted on flow.  It has been found that flow occurs when we experience a state of psychological tension that is manageable for us.  That level of challenge heightens our perception, but also preoccupies our consciousness with the task at hand.  So, if flow is anything, it is simply a state of hyper-focus.

Flow is more likely to happen in situations of:

  • High Achievement:  The desired outcome of the activity is highly rewarding.
  • High Concentration:  The task is sufficiently challenging.
  • High Control:  As an individual, you can effect change in the outcome.
  • Sensory Connection:  Where you have to connect deeply with your environment (or sensory experience) in order to succeed at the task.
  • Immediate Feedback:  The environment or situation produces a real-time sense of achievement or progress towards goals.

Flow & the Sense of Self

Most people in a state of flow report losing awareness of their existence.   Paradoxically, however, the experience of flow actually strengthens the awareness of self over time.  So people who experience flow regularly typically have a stronger sense of self.

This effect is believed to be the reason why flow states can help reduce depressive symptoms.  This is also the primary theory why some interventions (like mindfulness meditation) are effective in treating depression.

The Loss of Flow

Conversely, people who previously have experienced flow often report strongly negative experiences when they can no longer achieve it.   For example, Olympic athletes who become injured (and can no longer compete in their sport) have a concordantly higher risk of depression.  Aside from simply losing their identity and accomplishments, these athletes also lost the ability to attain flow.

Flow may also be the primary mechanism behind workaholism, or people who become so intensely focussed on work that they neglect themselves and/or their family.

So, flow is not inherently good or bad.  It just is.  We can use flow as a powerful tool to dramatically impact how we feel in a given moment.  To change our state of mind.  Because of this, flow is a crucial component of attaining mastery and purpose in life.

Leave a Reply