Find your flow: Getting in the zone

Mental healthArticleJuly 29, 2022

Sometimes, people who pursue happiness tend to uncover simple yet surprising secrets that can also benefit the rest of us. One of these secrets is flow.

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Quoted in a Positive Psychology article, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – the Hungarian-American psychologist behind the concept – defines flow as "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it". 

An early memory of Csikszentmihalyi's – as relayed in AARP – seems to have been formative: as a child during World War II, he’d get so absorbed in a chess game that he wouldn't notice the sound of bombs exploding around him. The article in Positive Psychology relates how years later, Csikszentmihalyi was inspired to find out more about this state by interviewing athletes, musicians, and artists; to find out "when they experienced optimal performance levels" and how they felt.

They told him about an effortless sense of flow – satisfying and very productive.

Flow may seem effortless, but it is not passive

Csikszentmihalyi, in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, describes being in flow as "a condition of high challenges and skills". He further adds that "the great majority of flow experiences are reported when working, not when in leisure".

Your brain goes into an altered state

Positive Psychology explains that in a state of flow, the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain “responsible for higher cognitive functions” – is believed to “temporarily down-regulate”, which “may trigger the feelings of distortion of time, loss of self-c Consciousness and Cognition onsciousness, and loss of inner critic”. A study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition puts it this way: "evidence from psychological and neuroscientific studies" suggests "the subtle modification" of the functioning of the prefrontal cortex.

A study in the Journal of Happiness Studies lists a few things experienced during a state of flow:

  • deep focus and attention 
  • self-consciousness vanishes
  • time is distorted (moving faster or slower)
  • you have clear goals 
  • you understand how well you are doing
  • you feel in control
  • the experience is rewarding in itself
  • it's a state of being in the moment

What gets the flow going?

For those who may want to explore the experience of flow, some things to bear in mind:

Balance: The Journal of Happiness Studies says, "In cases of imbalance, when skills outweigh challenges, people may feel apathy, boredom, and relaxation, whereas when the challenges outweigh the skills, people may feel worry, anxiety and arousal". So finding the ideal balance between what you can do and the task you choose to take on is important.

Avoid distractions: The Positive Psychology article says "It’s important to note that one can’t experience flow if distractions disrupt the experience" and suggests turning off your smartphone if you want to get into a state of flow.