Growing up in World War Two-ravaged Europe, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw the adults around him struggling to rebuild their lives – and often losing the will to try. He became preoccupied by a question that doesn’t trouble most kids: what makes life worth living?
Csikszentmihalyi moved from Hungary to the US to study psychology and the question that had obsessed him since childhood.
He wondered how wealth fit into the happiness equation, but the data suggested money wasn’t the answer; beyond a certain, basic threshold, increases in income hardly affected well-being. So, as he recounted in a TED talk enticingly subtitled The Secret to Happiness, he decided to explore “where in everyday life, in our normal experience, do we feel really happy?”.
Csikszentmihalyi thought that creatives – artists, painters, musicians – might have some insight. There must be some reason why they toiled away at projects unlikely to yield fame or fortune. Did something about their process bring them fulfilment? What made their sacrifice worthwhile? One composer told Csikszentmihalyi how, when his work was going well, he experienced a kind of ecstasy. He didn’t need to think, he lost track of time and the music would “just flow out”. Csikszentmihalyi heard athletes, poets, chess players describe the same phenomenon.
Flow is associated with subjective well-being, satisfaction with life and general happiness. At work, it’s linked to productivity, motivation and company loyalty
Indeed, there was something special happening. Csikszentmihalyi called this trance-like altered state of total absorption and effortless concentration ‘flow’.
That was 40 years ago. Since then Csikszentmihalyi, along with colleagues all over the world, has studied Himalayan climbers, Dominican monks, Navajo shepherds and thousands of others. To all of our good fortune, the researchers have found that ‘flow’ is not the exclusive realm of artists. In fact, we can experience flow whenever we are fully engaged with our work or hobbies or relationships, in mountains and monasteries alike.
A state of ‘flow’
A handful of conditions characterise the ‘flow state’.
“There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in his February 2004 TED talk. “You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
Some people also call this period of hyperfocus ‘being in the zone’. Whether you call it ‘flow’ or ‘the zone’, it's not just a state of mind. It’s accompanied by physiological changes, too. In a 2010 Swedish study on classical pianists, the musicians who entered flow exhibited deepened breathing and slowed heart rates. Even the facial muscles that enable us to smile were activated.
The benefits of being in the zone stretch beyond the experience itself. Flow is associated with subjective well-being, satisfaction with life and general happiness. At work, it’s linked to productivity, motivation and company loyalty.
Some people may be naturally prone to flow – especially those who score high on personality tests for conscientiousness and openness to experience, and low on measures of neuroticism. But if you don’t experience flow every day, can you find a way to trigger it?
Getting into the zone
First, you must create the optimal conditions to get to your flow state.
“Avoid noisy environments and opportunity for interruptions,” advises Giovanni Moneta, an academic psychologist at London Metropolitan University and the author of Positive Psychology: A Critical Introduction.
The activity makes a difference, too. “We need to engage in activities that are meaningful to us, that we find challenging and for which we feel that we have the skills required to come out as winners.”
We are more likely to access the flow state when engaged in tasks we’ve already practiced. Think of the expert figure skater on the rink or the confident singer at the microphone. The level of difficulty should also be just right – not so easy that you find yourself bored, but not so hard that you get stressed.
When people are mindful, their blood pressure comes down. All the physiological signs indicate greater wellbeing – Ellen Langer
Of course, that isn’t something we can always control. American author Steven Kotler, who wrote a book about peak human performance, has admitted that, as much as we’ve learned about its biological correlates and mental benefits, “flow is still a happy accident when it happens. All we can do is make you more accident-prone.”
And, as Moneta warns, flow can be exhausting. The work involved in completing a big project involves a lot more than the ecstatic, if preternaturally productive, periods of flow. To get to the finish line of a task, it’s just as important to slog through the boring parts and push through the uncomfortably difficult ones.
If you’re struggling to achieve flow – or just worn out by its intensity – you might aim for mindfulness instead. Think of mindfulness as a more accessible cousin of flow.
“The concepts are very similar,” says Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard who has written several books on mindfulness, creativity and belief. “The major difference is that mindfulness is a state of mind that is available to everybody virtually all the time. It’s not an unusual thing.”
Mindfulness confers many of the same benefits as flow, she says:
"When people are mindful, their blood pressure comes down. All the physiological signs indicate greater wellbeing. People see you as charismatic. You’re healthier, you’re happier, your relationships are better. The things you produce are better. We have symphony musicians performing mindfully or in their typical state (over-rehearsed and mindless). We play those pieces for people who don’t know anything about the study. Close to 90% prefer the mindfully played piece."
Almost any activity can be done mindfully, too – no yoga or meditation necessary.
“Simply say to yourself, ‘What are five new things about this person that I live with, this route that I’m taking home?’. Looking for new in the familiar leads us to be mindful,” says Langer. “If you’re talking to somebody and you think you know what they’re going to say, you barely listen. If you start off recognising that you don’t know, you have a very different attitude. Everything becomes more interesting, and if it’s interesting, it’s naturally engaging.”
Someone once asked me, upon learning that I was a writer, whether I “often experienced flow”. There’s a stereotype that writers and creatives can enter the zone at will – that we sit down at our laptops and the world melts away.
I’ve been practicing some of the elements of Moneta’s criteria to enter the zone for years. But I can remember accessing a state resembling flow only a few times; the vast majority of the hours I spend writing are closer to a grind than a trance. With any project, there are so many variables I can’t predict. Will my sources respond? Does the information I seek exist? Will someone send me a text starting ‘OMG’ to take me away from my focus? Plus, the idea of orchestrating a scenario in which the challenge exceeds my skills by 4% (as Kotler’s formula to enter flow recommends) strikes me as absurd.
Mindfulness, though, is more manageable. I can improve my focus by putting my phone in a drawer; when a task seems overwhelming, I can pause and take a breath. I can’t say it makes me feel transcendent, but I’ll take whatever calm I can get.
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