Csikszentmihalyi (1992, 1999, 2008) canonically brought the idea of the flow state to the mainstream. The flow state, colloquially, is being “in the zone”; it is a mental state that is associated with full immersion and optimal performance. This is what popular media presents. It is, however, strongly associated with happiness and the deriving of pleasure from an activity. To that end, the flow state is not just a pre-requisite for performance, but it also contributes to our happiness and wellbeing.
The first time I recall being in the flow state was through sports. Between the ages of 10 to 14, I was into Athletics, my specialty being the 100m and 200m. The training of a sprinter, to build up the explosive muscle and sprint endurance, is nothing short of torture. What motivated me, however, was place my mind went to during a proper-competitive sprint be it in training or competition.
Once the gun goes off, I was no longer in control, and my body took over. Every sprint, I felt like I was observing myself from above, there was no need for conscious control to kick my legs as fast as possible or keep my arms straight. The motions became automatic through training and repetition. Instead, silence pervaded and my focus was locked onto the horizon. My mind was bliss, there was nothing else in the world other than the muted sensation of my body fully tensed gracefully attaining and maintaining top speed. At the end of each race, it’s hard to recall what happened. It is as if the time disappeared and my conscious mind found itself at the start, then the end.
It was a difficult sensation to describe, and for that reason, I don’t think I ever did share this with anyone. I appreciate now that it was the flow state, and while the duration of 100m and 200m events are not very long, it gave me insight as into the mind of an athlete. I realised soon thereafter that I achieve this flow state in other areas like coaching and teaching.
A sense of timelessness, in my experience, has followed the flow state. When I first coached a team, it happened to be for basketball, I found myself so engrossed in the sessions and games. Losing track of time would be the main symptom. This was especially the case for practices as we only had a 2x one hour slots a week. A similar story occurred when I was teaching, either 1-1 or 1-30. I would regularly lose track of time and just be so consumed by the session. Of all the things I have done, coaching and teaching are among the most satisfying and I acknowledge now what role the flow state had in both. It is a signal that says it would not hurt if you do more of those activities the elicit it.
Looking practically, this becomes useful especially when you are looking for a job or generally just ways to spend your time. A criteria is whether you have in the past, or are likely to, achieved a flow state when undertaking the responsibilities of a prospective job. If yes, then that is a point in the plus column, if no, it’s a point in the minus column. It might not make the decision to say yes, stay, or leave a job, but it will help make the answer clearer. This applies if you have free time as well.
Suppose you have a free three hours before meeting up with friends or family, what do you do? Assume that all the chores are done and you have complete freedom to choose a way to pass the time, the flow state criteria can help narrow down the choices. For me, I would choose reading because I find it so easy to lose track of time with a good book. Otherwise, it might be painting, video games, or writing. It helps make the decision of what to do just a little bit easier.
Overall, the flow state should be something to keep in the back of our heads. It is inextricably linked with our wellbeing and an ability to derive pleasure from certain activities ceteris paribus.
Csikszentmihalyi (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Csikszentmihalyi (1992). Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy. American Psychologist, 54, 821-827.