“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” – Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
What Is Flow?
Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that action and awareness merged, everything became effortless, and you emerged surprised by your own ability? Whether it was catching a falling plate or excelling beyond your wildest dreams, these moments where we lose all self-consciousness and glimpse upon our greatest self are scientifically referred to as ‘Flow’.
Flow is an underlying state that allows us to feel creative, energised, and alert. When in Flow, scientists find breakthroughs, writers’ pens flow, and students walk away from exams exhilarated. “Flow sits at the heart of most, if not all, great athletic performances — and those achieved without Flow would have been made even more memorable via the experience of this optimal state”, explains Susan Jackson. World leaders and entrepreneurs such as Virgin’s founder, Richard Branson have sung the praises of Flow. Google, Red Bull and many other leading companies have integrated the principles of Flow into their workplace. Select groups such as Mai Tai, a pioneering collective of kitesurfing tech entrepreneurs and millionaires, cultivate experiences of Flow in their global gatherings so that they can bring out the best in people and engender new talent.
The McKinsey Global Research Institute spent 10-years interviewing over 5000 executives to discover that executives are five times more productive in Flow. Even the United States Air Force Research Laboratory has reported “a twofold improvement in how long a person can maintain performance,” asserts biomedical engineer, Andy Mckinley. “Flow naturally transforms a weakling in to a muscleman, a sketcher in to an artist, a dancer into a ballerina…an ordinary person into something extraordinary. Everything we do is better in Flow, from baking a chocolate cake to planning a vacation; from writing a business plan to making love. Flow is the doorway to the ‘more’ most of us seek. Rather than telling ourselves to get used to it, that that’s all there is, learn how to enter into Flow instead. There we will find, in manageable doses, all the ‘more’ we need” states Ned Hallowell, a Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist (ROSM). Beyond optimising technical skills, training regimens, and meal plans, most of us who are on the path to betterment are looking for an edge, and Flow is what every coach, athlete, performer of business leader is trying to capture, knowingly or not. In Flow, we embody the person that we otherwise try so hard to engineer.
This state not only produces that extra gear most of us seek, but also adds fuel to the curiosity that drives much of what we do. Distinguished professor John Hendry, who was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for his work in education and transforming Geelong Grammar School, characterises Flow in these words: “Flow captures the intention of all life experiences and is certainly the intention or stated purpose of every human endeavour, be it individual or group, team or institution. All the ‘iatry’ (care) aspects of the helping sciences, e.g. Psychiatry and psychology, medicine and all the human sciences and social sciences are embroiled in the task of pursuing Flow. This is ultimately the purpose of human existence for we wish always to have a better world laced with care and of course a living performance level that enables all to contribute to the best of their capacity moment-to-moment”
How we use Flow can make the difference between success and failure, a fully engaged life or not. It propels us out of the mindless humdrum of our everyday life, and allows us to discover our true capabilities. In this way, our lives become richer and more meaningful.
Flow was first realised through the study of happiness, fulfilment and meaning when Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi was studying artists for his postgraduate thesis. Why do we become so engaged in activities we love? As the artists worked they seemed to go into a trance-like state. To his surprise he found that the end product or outcome was less important to them than the process of doing the work itself, suggesting that external rewards were less important than intrinsic rewards or feelings.
Psychologists and researchers, helped by the movement of positive psychology, have studied Flow more in the last two decades than ever before. Over the years Flow has been linked to well-being, performance, creativity, improved decision making, optimal learning environments, and even become a therapeutic framework.
This state of being, and the concept of Flow, had been found to be consistent across various ‘performers’ such as athletes, artists, religious mystics, scientists, Nobel Prize winners, factory workers, executives, motorcycle gangsters, farmers, physicians, students, shepherds, and thousands of other people.
The Flow model has been scientifically proven to be robust across different activities, skill levels, cultures, genders, ages, and demographics. Flow is known by many different names in different activities. Musicians talk about being in the ‘groove’, jazz musicians find the ‘pocket’, fighter pilots enter the ‘bubble’, executives ‘nail it’, coders become ‘wired in’, traders are ‘in the pipe’, bowlers talk about being ‘on a roll’, basketballers go ‘on fire’ and Jeremy Jones, pioneering mountain freeriding snowboarder, calls this state his ‘white moments’. In science it is called the state of ‘Flow’, our optimal state of functioning. Regardless of the label we use, in this state of total immersion, action and awareness merge, self disappears and we are able to harness our skills to their optimal capacity. Whether it is a fleeting mild moment of Flow or an unforgettable intense state of Flow, we transform an ordinary experience into an extraordinary experience.
“Flow sits at the heart of the majority, if not all, of the greatest athletic performances, and those achieved without Flow would have been made even more memorable via the experience” – Sue Jackson
Abraham Maslow described the common states during peak performances as, “the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and a meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self determination and empathy”.
Csikszentmihalyi described Flow as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like jazz music. Your whole being is involved, and you re using your skills to the upmost The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Susan Jackson describes Flow as “a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions . a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred…Flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing”.
These fulfilling moments of personal excellence make us feel fantastic, leaving us buzzing for minutes, hours, and sometimes even days. Yet, when trying to capture the essence of what just happened, we are often left perplexed. Olympic archer Denise Parker describes this confusion, “I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t concentrating on anything. It didn’t feel like I was shooting my shots, but like they were shooting themselves. I try to remember what happened so I can get back to that place, but when I try to understand it, I only get confused. It’s like thinking how the world began”. Instead, most of us label the experience as luck and move on before it all gets too weird, or our ego becomes too cluttered with self-adulation to question the experience further. When we do take time to ponder ‘what just happened’, the experience often vanishes from our consciousness because we lack the wherewithal to understand it. Such experiences become like blind spots in our memory; we know they exist but we never properly see them. Consequently, for most of us, these experiences hover unexplored and unexplained in our unconscious.
More About Flow
Flow can be experienced in any human endeavour, from the tasks of daily living to demonstrations of outstanding levels of performance in sport and the performing arts. I have interviewed many athletes at the very top of their sport and found a consistent theme of performers valuing their experience of Flow. They appreciate the opportunity to speak about their experiences (rather than their results), and being motivated to have more Flow in their performances.
The following quote by an elite athlete illustrates how motivating an experience of Flow can be:
“Flow is what gives you the buzz to keep doing what you are doing, keep doing the sport. Because once you ve got it, it just lifts you. Once you lose it, it can be a real slog until you get it back again. And once you ve got it back again, and you re just grooving along, everything going well, that great. That just what you want it to be.”
Flow occurs when everything comes together in one experience, creating a psychological state of total absorption in the task at hand. Once Flow is understood, the pathway to enhanced performance becomes clear, as the Flow model provides a practical pathway to an optimal psychological state.
Knowing the conditions that set the stage for its occurrence puts Flow into the realms of an attainable psychological state, rather than a mystical experience that occurs if luck is on one side.
Flow is an optimal state because it involves being totally focused in the present moment. When in Flow, nothing disturbs or detracts from this concentrated state. Neither external nor internal distractions take up mental space. This present-moment focus is congruent with the aims of increasing mindfulness, and thus by helping individuals to be more mindful, psychologists may also be helping create the conditions for Flow.
Why does flow matter? Because quality of experience in what we do matters, and it is often when we are placed in a challenging situation that we have the opportunity to experience total involvement in what we are doing.
With thanks the above text is taken from Susan Jackson’s writings at https://www.psychology.org.au.