Artists describe it as “rapture”. Mystics describe it as “ecstasy”. Athletes call it”being in the zone”. Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu describes it as a state in which”perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants”. And Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hi Chicksent-me-hi) – a research psychologist and former chairman of the psychology department at the University of Chicago – who has devoted his life to the study of flow, describes it as an optimal experience during which people feel they are engaged in a creative unfolding of something greater than the task at hand, and experience a deep sense of fulfillment and spontaneous joy.
Flow is achieved any time we are able to experience full, positive engagement with what we are doing, when we are able to put “our all” into it – whether our activity involves art, problem-solving, innovation, games, sports, work or hobbies. It’s a total un-self-conscious tuning into the present and the activity with which we are engaged, during which the emotions are positively energized and completely aligned with the task at hand.
Csikszentmihalyi has identified and outlined several elements of the experience of flow, of which the following six are the most characteristic:
Flow is a state of self-forgetfulness. While in flow, people are performing at their peak, and they are so fully absorbed in their project that they lose all self-consciousness. Moments of flow are egoless. When experiencing flow people are unconcerned with how they are doing, with thoughts of success and failure, and they are totally into their project. They are not even consciously experiencing satisfaction or joy. In fact, experts warn, if we stop and think “Oh how happy I am”or “I’m doing this so well” flow may be interrupted by the shift of focus from the project to the self. The feelings of deep satisfaction, elation, fulfillment that accompany flow are usually consciously realized in retrospect.
There is no perception of space and time. The outside world fades away, while full focus is maintained on the task. Distractions are excluded from consciousness. Performing artists become unaware of the audience, in fact, after the performance is over, they may not remember much about it. A skier who wan a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in 1994, when interviewed about her experience said that she remembered nothing about it except being immersed in relaxation: “I felt like a waterfall”.
Time becomes an ever-present NOW in which awareness and action are merged into one. Instead of the individual being in charge of the process, the process seems in charge of itself – each step emerging out of the previous one seemingly in one,single stretched out moment. ( I have over-boiled my pasta into a paste, or burned my food many times while writing an article and carried away by flow… So, a word of caution about multi-tasking.)
In flow, the brain is in a “cool” state. The quality of attention while in flow is highly focused, yet completely relaxed and at ease. When people reach this effortless state of flow, their brain actually “quiets down” even though the activity may be quite challenging. But once totally attuned to the task at hand, and positively, emotionally immersed in it, the brain works unhindered by other concerns, like worry or fear. The zone of flow is described as an “oasis of cortical experience”, with a bare minimum of mental energy expended.
Flow occurs when the activity is “autotelic”- is done for its own sake, is perceived as an end in itself. researchers have found that flow is achieved more easily by artists who just focus on their artwork – instead of focusing on the future benefits of fame and wealth that their art may bring. The same results have been found in self-reports of athletes, writers, innovators, who have begun their projects or undertaken their specific challenge not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself – perhaps an opportunity to try something new, to excel in something, to stretch and outdo themselves.
While in flow, people are tireless. When the brain is operating at peak performance, even very challenging tasks that require very hard work are experienced as refreshing or replenishing rather than draining. This, occasionally, may have some negative side-effects, because the brain does get tired eventually and fatigue may ensue. Most people who have learned to get into the zone of flow, usually know when to take a break or stop working on their project for a while, knowing that they can get back into it anytime they want.
Flow is “addictive”. This happens for two reasons: 1) Because flow frequently occurs when an activity challenges people to the fullest of their capacities, as their skills increase it takes a heightened challenge to get into flow – like a bigger dose of a drug. 2) Flow feels good and is intrinsically rewarding; for this reason, people tend to want to repeat the experience of flow as frequently as possible. A client of mine, owner of a large retail company, described in his sessions the elation he felt in applying some new systems in the organization of his company to improve company-customer relations. I could feel the high level ofinvolvement in his project as he talked about it, and I could see in his shining eyes the excitement and rapture that he felt. As soon as his project was complete, and the new systems were running perfectly, he embarked upon a new project with “even better” systems for improving company-customer relations that he had in the meantime discovered. In other words, “hooked on flow”…
How easy is it to experience flow? I believe the whole key to getting into flow is achieving this state of self-forgetfulness that the experts stress, and totally focusing on the project with positive expectation and total emotional engagement. Usually, the brain will create some “static” in the first few minutes until it becomes completely aligned with the task at hand, but suddenly, you are there, “in the zone”, experiencing the magic of flow.
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Ismini Apostoli is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, practicing in Greece and offering online services throughout the world. She is particularly interested in self- esteem, self-development and self-actualization and helping people uncover their special gifts and talents. You can find out more by visiting http://www.yourempowermenttherapist.com.
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