Flow, or optimal experiences, according to Mike Csikzentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), is a state in which one is immersed in an experience that is rewarding in and of itself, a state in which we feel we are one with the experience, in which “action and awareness are merged;” an environment that are conducive to the experience of present and future benefit, pleasure and meaning.
When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, and never wanting it to end? Is it painting, or playing volleyball, or talking before a group, or rock climbing, or listening sympathetically to someone else’s troubles?
We all know what it feels like to be so absorbed in reading a book or writing a paper that we fail to hear our name being called. Or while cooking a meal or talking to a friend or playing basketball in the neighborhood park, we discover that hours have gone by when it seemed that only minutes had passed. These are experiences of flow.
Optimal experiences are reported to occur within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules-activities that require the investment of psychic (mental) energy, and that could not be done without the appropriate skills. It is important to clarify that an “activity” need not be in be active in the physical sense, and the “skill” necessary to engage it need not be a physical skill. For instance, one of the most frequently mentioned enjoyable activities the world over is reading. Reading is an activity because it requires the concentration of attention and has a goal, and to do it one must know the rules of written language.
Everybody develops routines to full in the boring gaps of the day, or to bring experience back on an even keel when anxiety happens. Some people are compulsive doodlers, others chew on things or smoke, smooth their hair, hum a tune, or engage in more private rituals that have the same purpose: to impose order in consciousness through the performance of patterned action.
In spite of he huge differences in the activities themselves- from meditators to ballerinas- they all describe the psychological components of gratification in notable similar ways.
Here are the components:
A noticeable absence off this list is positive emotion. While positive emotions like pleasure, exhilaration, and ecstasy are occasionally mentioned, typically in retrospect, they are not usually felt. In fact, it is the absence of emotion, of any kind of consciousness, that is the heart of flow.
When in a state of flow we enjoy both peak experience and peak performance; we experience pleasure and perform at our best. Athletes often refer to this experience as being in the zone. Whatever we do in a state of flow-whether kicking a ball, carving wood, writing a poem, or studying for an exam-we are completely focused on our activity; nothing distracts us or competes for our attention. Performing at our best, we learn, grow, improve and advance toward our future purpose.
Csikzentmihalyi explains that having goals, having a clear sense of purpose, is necessary in order to attain flow. While goals can and do change over time, the direction of the activity has to be unambiguous while we are performing it. When we are not distracted by all the other possible things we could be doing, when we are wholeheartedly committed to our objective, we are free to devote our selves fully to the task at hand. In flow, present and future benefit merge: a clear future goal is not in opposition but rather contributes to the experience of the here and now. Flow experiences lead to higher levels of happiness by transforming the formula of “no pain, no gain” to “present gain, future gain.”
Research on flow shows that pain is not, in fact, the optimal condition for peak performance. Rather, there is a specific zone, the line between overexertion and underexertion, where we not only at our best but also enjoy what we are doing. We reach this zone when our activities provide the appropriate level of challenge, when the task at hand is neither too difficult nor too easy.
The graph shows that if the difficulty of a task is high and our skill level is low, then we experience anxiety; if our skill level is high and difficulty of the new task is low, we experience boredom. We experience flow when the difficulty of the task and our skill level correspond.
In ordinary English, we do not distinguish between the gratifications and the pleasures. We casually say that we like a back rub, or the sound of rain on a tin roof (all pleasures) as well as saying that we like playing volleyball, reading James Joyce, and helping the homeless (all gratifications).
Given all the benefits and the flow that gratifications produce, it is very puzzling that we often choose pleasure (and worse, displeasure) over gratification. In the nightly choice between reading a good book and watching a sitcom on television, we often choose the latter-although surveys show again and again that the average mood while watching sitcoms on television is mild depression. Habitually choosing the easy pleasures over the gratifications may have unexpected consequences.
To start the process of avoiding easy pleasures and engaging in more gratifications is hard. The gratifications produce flow, but they require skill and effort; even more deterring is the fact that because they meet challenges, they offer the possibility of failing.