Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Flow is so named because during interviews in 1975 by psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihalyi (aka MC, a Hungarian psychology professor, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 22), several people described their “flow” experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along.

The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase; go with the flow. Buzz terms for this or similar mental states include: to be in the moment, to be present, in the zone, on a roll, wired in, in the groove, on fire, in the pipe, playing the A-game, in tune, centred or focused.

Flowing Colours

According to MC, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channelled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity, not even oneself or one’s emotions.

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination they constitute a so-called flow experience.

Flow has been experienced throughout history and across cultures. The teachings of Buddhism and Taoism speak of a state of mind known as the “action of inaction” or “doing without doing” that greatly resembles the idea of flow. Also Hindu texts on Advaita philosophy such as Ashtavakra Gita and the Bhagavad-Gita refer to a similar state.

Historical sources hint that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in a state of flow. It is reported that he painted for days at a time, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not even stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. After this, he would wake up refreshed and, upon starting to paint again, re-enter a state of complete absorption.

Flow is one of the main reasons that people play video games. This is especially true since the primary goal of games is to create entertainment through intrinsic motivation, which is related to flow.

Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve the flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task. (Goals are clear)
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust to his or her performance to maintain the flow state. (Feedback is immediate)
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her perceived skills. One must have confidence that one is capable to do the task at hand. (A balance between opportunity and capacity)

CM hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow more often than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality. So far there is a lack of research on the autotelic personality.

Essay by Marc, Osho News

Related discourse excerpt:
Action through Inaction

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