Finding Flow this weekend.

Anyone who watches sports is familiar with the concept of being “in the zone.” Whether it is Kobe Bryant flying around and through defenders with seeming ease, Tom Brady knifing perfect spirals into tiny openings in the defense, Serena Williams humbling opponents with laser-like groundstrokes, or Nastia Liukin flying through one nearly perfect routine after another in the Beijing Olympic games, when an athlete is “in the zone” it seems he or she can do no wrong. And, it’s not just athletes who experience being in the zone. Artists and performers of all types also achieve this exalted state.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee) and colleagues have studied this phenomenon in athletes, musicians, dancers and others and given this zone state a name — flow. Researchers have learned that being in a flow state not only yields optimum performance, but it has other benefits as well. Not surprisingly, being in the zone is a highly pleasurable experience — it is just fun. More than that, people who experience more flow states also experience more confidence, self-esteem, happiness and meaning in life.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a superstar athlete or performer to experience flow. In fact, you can experience flow while engaging in many common activities, from jogging to auditing financial statements. The bad news is that flow states do not come for free. Achieving a state of flow requires that you be engaged in an activity that requires the use of skill, and that you are performing those skills at or near your limit. In other words, whatever the activity, you must practice to gain skills, and then challenge yourself to do perform at your best. To get to a flow state, you have to put in the work.

Here are the conditions researchers have identified as necessary for reaching a flow state in whatever activity you choose:

  • You must have clear goals for your activity — e.g., to win a tennis match, to play that piano sonata flawlessly, to code an elegant computer program
  • Feedback for your efforts must be immediately available
  • Your abilities and the challenges you face must be evenly matched — if something is too easy, you will become bored, too hard and you may become frustrated
  • You need to be able to focus deeply on the task at hand — no multitasking, no interruptions
  • While you must start with a goal, your focus should be on the process of reaching the goal and not the outcomes you want from reaching the goal. In other words, focus on the playing, not the glory that might come from success.

So, while it may not be possible to play basketball like an all star or the violin like a virtuoso, it is possible — if only for short periods of time — to feel like the star performers feel when they are at their best. And while being in the zone doesn’t last forever, achieving flow states more often is likely to lead to more confidence, self-esteem and satisfaction with your life — good reasons to challenge yourself to find your own flow states.

Here at BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching people’s happiness and satisfaction with life. We also want to determine who is experiencing distinct positive emotions associated with flow - for example, who experiences a lot of pride (e.g., ‘I am proud of myself and my accomplishments’), amusement (e.g., ‘I find humor in almost everything’), awe (e.g., ‘I often feel awe’), and love (e.g., ‘I love many people’) in their daily lives? To help us understand the connection between happiness and experiences of flow, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then click here take our Positive Emotion Scale and click here to take our Happiness and Life Satisfaction survey.

This post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a graduate student in the Personality and Well-being Lab at San Francisco State University.

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  • Darwin A. Guevarra

    A few thoughts. Do you really need to start with a goal in order to initiate flow? That is to say does it have to be explicit to you? Also, would you agree that flow is just hitting a critical point on the “level of engagement” continuum? or is it qualitatively different?

    It appears to me that the person that is inclined to make everything a game, life would be full of flow experiences.

    • kerry

      I agree about making everything a game. Can you think of any games that don’t have desired outcomes (i.e., goals/objectives)? I think you do need to have a goal, even if it is simply to get through something (e.g., a piece of music), to improve a bit, to play well, sound good, beat the other guy, etc.). Without some sort of objective, there may not be adequate motivation to persist in the face of the challenges that are also requisite for flow. You may still engage in the activity and may still actually enjoy it, but might not find yourself getting in the zone.

      As to critical point in level of engagement…. sure, that’s probably another way to say it — is part of the definition, in fact.