The Psychology of Flow
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 31, 2019
Activities that demands attention but not requiring more skill than we possess can create rejuvenating states of flow.
Our minds dynamically jump back and forth through countless streams of data. Information flows from external experience and internal processes, drudging up memories and emotions. In many ways, the mind is chaotic, jumping at the loudest and flashiest objects. We fret over the most salient problems that reside on consciousness, frustratingly trying to solve the unsolvable. Here in the undisciplined mind, we destroy the wondrous experience of living, contaminating the joys with chaotic ruminations. We escape this mental entropy through focused attention. We create order in consciousness by focusing psychic energy and establishing priorities. When focusing attention on a demanding task, we often enter a state of being known as flow. Regular forays into states of flow rejuvenate our souls, bring new joys to our life, and invite heighten achievements.
What is Flow?
Flow is good for our minds, good for our bodies, and good for our lives. So, the questions we must ask are, “what is flow, and how can we get into the flow?” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed. Flow is a person's sense of joy, creativity, and the experience of complete involvement in life. Such states foster a psychic realm where optimal human functioning flourishes (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). When in these powerful states of attention, we experience an increased sense of control and unity of the body and mind.
An article reviewing flow as it pertains to sports performance breaks the experience down into nine components, giving more clarity to this phenomenon of focused attention. “Flow involves nine components: challenge-skills balance, merging of action-awareness, clear goals, feedback, concentration, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, transformation of time, and autotelic experience.” (Carter, River, & Sachs, 2013)
"Flow is a person's sense of joy, creativity, and the experience of complete involvement in life."
Hours melt into minutes as the mind is drawn completely into the task at hand. The chaotic wanderings disappear because attention is reigned in and focused. Csikszentmihalyi further suggests that, “to control attention means to control experience, and therefore the quality of life.” (1997, p. 129).
Our attention is programmed through culture and biological givens. Each lay their claim and file their ownership. Our psychic experience follows this pre-written script of biology and culture. However, we can wrestle ownership and direct our attentional life. (1997, p, 130). Highly acclaimed behavior science writer Winnifred Gallagher puts it this way, “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” (Newport, 2016. Location 857).
Left to our own, we drift to the easy. Focused attention requires purposeful effort, but once engaged, we effortlessly remain in a flow experience because sufficient challenge commandeers the mind, wandering worries dissolve because the attentional energy is fully engaged. This state is notably present “when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 30).
Activities must be sufficiently demanding to prevent thoughts from wandering, but must not be overly difficult, leading to frustration.
A recent study of Elite Turkish Handball players found the players to experience more states of flow when perceiving competition to be at a higher level. The players were pulled into the matches, fully engaged in the event with little self-appraising thought. (Vurgun, Dorak, Ozsaker, & Uludag, 2016).
The environment assists in blocking unneeded stimuli. When engaged in demanding tasks, we easily block competing bids for our attention. We can create these environments by turning off our phones, shutting out door, and structuring time to perform demanding tasks. Just as stiff competition requires a different state of being, so does mind work. If we want to delve deeper, past the shallowness of emails and busy work, we must escape distractions. We can enter flow states of being in activities of the mind.
Skilled practitioners learn to escape distraction no matter what the environment, they focus attention on all activities. They quickly translate ordinary moments of living into flow experiences. Csikszentmihalyi refers to these people as autotelic. They experience flow at work, at home, with others, and when alone. (1997, p. 101). They pay attention to life, investing attention in small moments of beauty; they feel the cool water, hear the sounds of a bird and see the colors of a sunset. These moments have great worth, drawing attention away from the annoyances and worries to focus on the small spectacular miracles.
"These moments have great worth, drawing attention away from the annoyances and worries to focus on the small spectacular miracles."
Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background. (p. 31)
Here flow and mindfulness merge. The healthy brain states of focused attention, when directed towards the ‘good,’ provides healthy retreats from the wandering mind while simultaneously attending to constructive activities that will bless our lives, improve our well-being and add to the goodness of the world. Our lives of despair transform from these flashes of intense moments, giving life color and meaning. Instead of our minds tirelessly jumping back and forth in chaos, feeding guilt from the past and giving life to anxieties of the future, we discover the peace found in the moment.
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Carter, L., River, B., & Sachs, M. L. (2013). Flow in Sport, Exercise, and Performance: A Review with Implications for Future Research. Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 5(3), 17. Retrieved from Questia.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Newport, C. (2016) Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Retrieved from Kindle.
Sampaio Barros, M., Araújo-Moreira, F., Trevelin, L., & Radel, R. (2018). Flow experience and the mobilization of attentional resources. Cognitive, Affective, & Behaviorial Neuroscience, 18(4), 810-823.
Vurgun, N., Dorak, R. F., Ozsaker, M., & Uludag, S. (2016). Flow Experience and Performance: A Study of Elite Turkish Handball Players. Journal of Physical Education and Sport, 16(2), 562. Retrieved from Questia.