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Flow States and How to Access Them - Part 1

Publication date: 24 November 2011

The concept of flow is in some ways as old as the hills but it was systematised and brought to prominence by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his classic work 'Flow'. Flow states are a mainstay in the world of positive psychology, which studies what it means to be happy. For example see Martin Seligman's work.

Csikszentmihalyi wanted to know what characterised people who were happy – in the sense of being fully engaged in life. The essence of a flow state is that you become so absorbed in whatever it is you're doing, that you lose awareness of yourself as a separate being, and things just happen naturally (they flow) without any need for willed effort on your part. It's still you doing it, but if feels effortless, as if you are moved by some force beyond yourself. Flow states are very enjoyable – but you only realise it in retrospect. Flow states are common, at least for some people, and can happen in almost any context but are most typically encountered while playing sport, or music, or practising some art form, but also in more mundane contexts. A lot of people find flow at work! Csikszentmihalyi researched flow states in a wide range of cultures and contexts, and distilled a set of characteristics of flow states:

  • There is the right level of challenge or difficulty – not so easy that you're bored but not so hard you become anxious.
  • Your attention becomes fully absorbed in your activity. That means right here, right now.
  • There is a clear goal – for example in tennis it's to play a good shot, win the rally, the game etc.
  • There is immediate feedback on your progress towards the goal. In tennis, you can feel a well-timed shot, and also hear the ping of the ball coming off the sweet-spot of your racquet, and you can see whether it goes over the net and into the court.
  • There is effortless involvement – no sensing of pushing or willing or having to work hard.
  • And yet at the same time there is a sense of control – you are doing it. (At least 'you' in the broader sense.)
  • There is a loss of self-consciousness – you aren't aware of yourself as doing this activity, there is just the doing of it. You are the world are seamlessly joined. A typical “anti-flow” state might be public speaking – where you're painfully aware of yourself, with thoughts about how you are doing, and what other people might think of you). (Of course I mean if public speaking involves stress and anxiety – for some people it could be a flow state.)
  • There is an altered sense of time – time can either fly by, so that later you wonder where the time went, or it can slow right down so that each minute seems to last hours. Or in some weird way it might seem to do both!

In a lot of flow states (but not all), thinking is either absent or present in a much subtler form. Thinking may even interfere with the flow state – in tennis for example, if I tell myself to get my footwork right, or that I'm at break point and it's really important not to make any mistakes now, I'm likely to get in the way of myself – more about this later. Self-judging, stress and anxiety seem to be the opposite of flow.

In sport, flow states are often termed being “in the zone”, and they are of course highly desirable, so there's a lot of interest in how to access flow states. But it's not so easy – and that's because trying to access flow presents something of a paradox. “Trying to” means willed effort, which is by definition the opposite of flow. Even in just thinking about flow, I'm abstracting myself from what's going on around me, and also conceiving some future state (flow) which is different from the here and now.

And yet we all can recognise the desirability of flow states – there seems to be something quintessentially human about them – we feel we are truly ourselves doing what we are meant to do. I personally can't resist the idea that our mindfulness and meditation practice should involve flow states in some way.

No doubt the ability to readily access flow is highly desirable – it must be about the best possible stress management technique.

So how to resolve the paradox? Well I've run out of space in this post but I promise to take up the theme again in my next post. In the meantime do feel free post comments!

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