What Is a Flow State in Psychology?

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An individual experiences a flow state when they become deeply immersed in an activity that is challenging but not outside of their skillset. The idea of flow was introduced and first studied by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Engaging in a flow state helps an individual learn and further develop their skills while also increasing their enjoyment of those skills.

Key Takeaways: Flow State

  • A flow state involves total absorption in and concentration on an activity one enjoys and is passionate about, resulting in a loss of self-consciousness and the distortion of time.
  • Pioneering positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to describe and research flow states.
  • Flow is considered an optimal experience that can increase happiness in life and will also push an individual to meet increased challenges by learning new skills.

Origin and Characteristics of Flow

Throughout history, the experience of deep absorption in an activity has been noted by various individuals. From Michelangelo working for days on end without rest on the Sistine Chapel, to athletes who describe being “in the zone,” people can experience an immersive state during different activities.

In the 1960s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that many artists fell into this single-minded state while engaged in their creative work. His research on the topic demonstrated that people can experience flow during many different situations, including games like chess, sports like surfing or rock climbing, professional activities like performing surgery, or creative activities like writing, painting, or playing a musical instrument. Csikszentmihalyi used the term “flow state” to describe this experience of deep focus because many of the people he interviewed about it said the experience was like being “in flow.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s investigation of flow involved extensive interviews, but he also developed an experience sampling method to study the subject. This method involved giving research participants pagers, watches, or phones that signaled them at specific times during the day at which point they were supposed to complete an instrument about what they were doing and feeling at that moment. This research demonstrated that flow states were similar across various settings and cultures. 

Based on his work, Csikszentmihalyi specified several conditions that must be met in order for an individual to enter a flow state. These include:

  • A clear set of goals that require clear responses
  • Immediate feedback
  • A balance between the task and one’s skill level, so that the challenge is not too high or too low
  • Complete focus on the task
  • A lack of self-consciousness
  • The distortion of time, such that time seems to pass more quickly than usual
  • The feeling that the activity is intrinsically rewarding
  • A sense of strength and control over the task

Benefits of Flow

The absorption of flow can be brought about by any experience, whether work or play, and leads to an authentic, optimal experience. Csikszentmihalyi explained, “It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on our inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand…. Only after the task is completed do we… look back…, then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of the experience… in retrospect, we are happy.”

Flow is also valuable for learning and developing skills. Flow activities are experienced as challenging but achievable. Over time, however, the activity may become too easy if it never changes. Thus, Csikszentmihalyi noted the value of increasing challenges so they are just slightly outside one’s skill set. This enables the individual to maintain the flow state while also enabling them to learn new skills. 

The Brain During Flow

Some researchers have started to turn their attention to what happens in the brain during flow. They’ve found that activity in the prefrontal cortex is decreased when a person experiences a flow state. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that’s responsible for complex cognitive functions including memory, the monitoring of time, and self-consciousness. During flow, though, the activity in the prefrontal cortex is temporarily inhibited, a process referred to as transient hypofrontality. This may lead to the temporal distortion and lack of self-consciousness one experiences during flow. The decreased activity of the prefrontal cortex may also allow freer communication between other areas of the brain and enable the mind to become more creative.

How to Achieve Flow

Given the numerous benefits of flow to both improve performance and increase happiness, many people are interested in achieving flow more often in their daily lives. And there are certain things one can do to cultivate flow. For example, discovering which activities lead one to experience flow and focusing one’s attention and energies on them can increase the odds of entering a flow state. This can be different for different people. While one person may enter a flow state while gardening, another may do so while drawing or running a marathon. The key is to find an activity that the individual is passionate about and finds enjoyable. The activity should also have a specific goal and a clear plan to get to that goal, whether that's deciding the best place to plant a tree to ensure it grows and thrives or successfully finishing a drawing so that it expresses what the artist intended.

In addition, the activity must be challenging enough to require the individual to stretch their skill level just beyond their current capabilities. Ultimately, the balance between skill level and challenge must be optimal to achieve flow. If the challenge is too high it can lead to frustration and anxiety, if the challenge is too low It can lead to boredom, and if the challenge as well as one’s skills are too low it can lead to apathy. High challenges and high skills, however will result in deep involvement in the activity and create the desired flow state.

Today it can be especially hard to ensure one’s environment is optimized for flow. No matter how passionate or optimally challenging an activity, it won’t lead to a flow state if disruptions keep popping up. As a result, it is essential that smartphones and other distractions get turned off if you want to achieve flow.

Sources

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement in Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1997.
  • Oppland, Mike. “8 Ways To Create Flow According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.” Positive Psychology, 20 November 2019. https://positivepsychology.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-father-of-flow/
  • Snyder, C.R., and Shane J. Lopez. Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Sage, 2007.