Life potentials What is Flow in Psychology

There has been much interest within Positive Psychology in the state known as flow. This state is characterized by total absorption in a challenging activity for which the individual has the skills, albeit the skills are stretched to their limits

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What is the flow state? 

Think of a runner competing in a marathon. His goal is clear. He needs to reach the finish line faster than his competitors. He has trained long and hard for this. He knows he can do it, and he is focused on winning the race. There is nothing else in his mind but crossing the finish line. He sees it as a challenge to his skills, and he is ready to take it on. His heart is beating fast in anticipation. The race starts and he bursts into a run. His legs are pounding the ground in time with his heartbeat. He’s not conscious of himself or his environment. He is single-mindedly focused on crossing the finish line. Nothing else exists. He is in what positive psychology calls the “Flow State.”

The Benefits of being in a State of Flow

  • Knowing your capacity to overcome challenges, and meet goals, increases your sense of overall life satisfaction.
  • A state of flow produces intense feelings of enjoyment.
  • People who are often in a state of flow are less apathetic, and more motivated. 
  • Flow situations allow for personal development and growth, 2 factors that leads to happiness.
  • When in a flow state, a person is gaining mastery of the task at hand. It develops feelings of competence and efficiency. 
  • People who achieve flow state more often are happier and have healthier self-esteems.
  • Achieving a state of flow at work leads to success and career advancement.
  • Studies of high-flow professions such as writers, musicians and artists show that the dissatisfaction they sometimes experience in their work is what pushes them forward to achieve their goals.

What is Flow in Psychology - The Flow State 

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, first coined the term. He is known for his work in the realms of happiness and creativity. According to him, people are at their happiest when they’re in a state of flow. They forget about all concerns, fully motivated and focused on the present moment. There is no time, no ego, and no other need. They are totally immersed in the task at hand, mind, body and soul, and their skills are being utilized to the fullest.

The flow theory is not new. The concept of achieving happiness by living in the moment have been a prevalent theme in Eastern Traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and others.

How do you achieve Flow State? 

It is possible to enter the flow state while doing any activity, but the probabilities are higher when you are wholeheartedly doing a task for its own sake. You have to be doing something to enter a flow state, so passive activities like reading and watching TV will not cause it.

The challenge and skill level must match. If the challenge is high and the skill level is low, it results to negative emotions such as anxiety and stress. If the challenge is low and the skill level is high, the person may enjoy it at first, but will eventually be bored with it. Only when the challenge level is high and the person’s skill level is high, can a state of flow be achieved.


Flow Model courtesy of Wikipedia

According to Csíkszentmihályi, 3 conditions have to be met to achieve flow state:

  1. There needs to be a clear set of goals and a way to track progress. The task must have direction and structure. 
  2. There needs to be immediate and clear feedback, allowing the person to deal with changing demands, and adjust performance to maintain the flow state. 
  3. There must be a balance between how a person perceives the challenge level, and how he perceives his own capability or skill to complete the task.

Another set of conditions have been proposed by Owen Schaffer in 2013. Working with Csikszentmihalyi, he developed measures of flow and the conditions that get people into flow:

  1. They should know what they’re supposed to do. 
  2. They should know how to do it. 
  3. They should know how well they’re doing. 
  4. They should know where to go (if navigation is required) 
  5. High perceived challenge. 
  6. High perceived skills. 
  7. Freedom from distractions.

Why do we go into Flow State? 

In a TED Talk in 2004, Csikszentmihalyi explains that our nervous system is not capable of processing more than 110 bits of information per second. That may sound like a lot, but just trying to understand what someone is saying to you requires your brain to process 60 bits per second. That’s why you need to focus when you’re talking to someone, and you can’t talk to 2 people at the same time.

In the process of creating something new or achieving a challenging task, you are fully immersed in the moment and there are no resources left to process anything else. You don’t feel fatigue, hunger, nor do you daydream and let your mind wander. You are “in the zone”. In this state, you don’t exist, and the feeling has been described as ecstatic.

What does it feel to be in the Flow?

  • You’re completely focused and involved in what you’re doing. 
  • Your mind is totally clear on what you’re supposed to do, and you’re getting immediate feedback on how well you’re doing. 
  • You feel challenged, but you are confident in your ability to complete the task successfully. 
  • You lose track of yourself, your worries and all concerns. 
  • You don’t notice the time passing. 
  • You feel inspired and motivated. 
  • You feel a sense of ecstasy, like you’re outside of everyday reality.

Inviting more Flow into your Life 

After all that’s mentioned above, we can see that we need to do the following to invite more flow into our lives:

Develop skills Continuous learning and self-development are necessary to prepare you for any challenge that comes your way.

Seek Challenges 

Pushing our skills and capability to the limit allows more flow into our everyday lives. However, we can’t test these limits if we don’t seek challenges. Be involved in more activities that you enjoy. Do something that inspires or motivates you. There’s never a shortage of things to do, but we often rest on our laurels, and become lazy.

Define Clear Goals 

When you do something, make sure your target is clear, and you have a way to measure your progress and success.

Concentrate on the Moment 

“To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement.” – Bertrand Russell

This is an age-old advice, to be in the moment. It will take 15 minutes to start getting into a state of flow. You have to be completely focused and immersed on what you’re doing. If your thought wanders or you get distracted, you will exit the state of flow. 


In our search for happiness, the Flow State is one road that we should look into. It makes sense that as we feel more capable and relevant as a person, we also feel a deeper sense of satisfaction with our lives. Overcoming challenges, achieving our goals, and increasing our ability to tackle life’s problems will keep us away from negative emotions that come from fear, worry and anxiety. Which ultimately means, more happiness in our lives. 

Have you experienced being in the Flow State? 


Wikipedia: Flow (Psychology) 

Edutech Wiki: Flow Theory 

About Education: What is Flow?

The Pursuit of Happiness: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile

Read about how you can create more flow in your life and increase your level of happiness in the book “Happiness - the science behind your smile” by Professor of Behavioural Science Daniel Nettle.

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