When is life at its best? Positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura say it is when you are in a state of mind they call “flow.” He has also referred to this state as “optimal experience.” The flow state describes a feeling where you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing.
You may have experienced that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.” This is the flow state and it’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re engaged in a physical activity, a creative pursuit, or even a simple day-to-day task.
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk.
When you’re giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and totally immersed in, you may find yourself creating the conditions necessary to experience a flow state of mind. The mind’s usual chatter begins to fade away, placing us in a non-distracted zone. The feelings that would consume you under normal circumstances (inhibition, hunger, fatigue, or aches and pains) melt away, and all that matters is your dedication to your craft.
You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.
You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf, the needle point project, the flow of thoughts as you write, the feel of wood being crafted.
You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Instead, you are completely focused on the activity—mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your work, creating tiers of beautiful icing for a cake, or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation.
You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.
You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.
You are challenged. Flow experiences occur when there is a balance between the challenge of an activity and the skill you have in performing it (see “High skill + high challenge = flow”). When your skill is high but the challenge is low, boredom is the likely result. Set the challenge too high, though, by undertaking something that is way beyond your skill, and you’re out of the flow again.
Invite Flow Experiences
- Aim to surprise yourself and discover new things about your abilities and the activity.
- Choose an activity that can provide you with new feelings, experiences, and insights, and allow your feelings and awareness to flow without attempting to interfere.
- Pay attention to your bodily sensations and posture.
- Overcome the urge to stop at every mistake. You are likely to be at your best when you focus on what you want to accomplish or experience and don’t allow mistakes to be distracting.
- Accept that physical symptoms of nervousness are normal and will naturally ease off once you get going.
- Try to work or play with others.
- Maintain your sense of humor.
Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing
- When is your earliest memory of being really good at something?
- What contributed to your proficiency?
- How difficult was it to gain proficiency?
- How did you feel when involved in this activity?
- How did your feelings differ when involved in activities in which you were less proficient?
- What other activities in different stages of life have had the same kind of effect on you?
- What factors detract from getting full benefits of being in “flow” or in “the zone”?
- What opportunities do you have for new “flow” activities?
- Can past “flow” activities be applied to this stage of life?