Mindfulness and Flow
Living in the present. Flow depends on the ability of performers to remain focused on the present moment. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1990) suggested, “concentration on the task at hand is the most obvious feature of being in the flow” (p. 110). Being in the present enhances performance and improves the quality of experiences (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Present-centeredness is a state in which things appear to happen effortlessly because the strategies and assessments that typically occupy the mind are silent (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow requires the capacity to live in the moment and focus (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Jackson & Delehanty, 1995; Orlick, 1990; Ravissa, 2002). Aherne et al. (2011) asserted that “concentration, or the ability to focus on the task at hand while ignoring distractions, is a crucial prerequisite of successful performance in sport” (p. 177). Jackson (1995) found that flow requires a present, non-self-conscious concentration on a task. Jackson (1995) reported that the main barriers to athletes achieving flow were cognitive factors (e.g., thinking too much, focusing on the self).
There is some empirical research supporting that people with a high disposition for flow are more mindful and vice versa (Bernier, Thienot, Codron, & Fournier, 2009; Kee & John Wang, 2008; Moore, 2013). Indeed, to many researchers, mindfulness and flow appear to be similar psychological states. Previous researchers have highlighted a clear theoretical relationship between the concepts, mainly there emphasis on present-moment focus (see Gardner & Moore, 2004; Kaufman et al., 2009; Kee & Wang, 2008; Salmon et al., 2010; McGregor, & Groundwater, 2014). Wright et al. (2006) suggested that flow and mindfulness may be on an experiential continuum. Sheldon, Prentice, and Halusic (2015) proposed that increasing the ability to be mindful might also increase the ability to experience flow. Flow and mindfulness both emphasize the importance of the present moment, but few researchers assessed athletes’ mindfulness and experiences of flow (Aherne et al., 2011). Kee and Wang (2008) asserted, “there was a lack of research addressing the relationship between flow and mindfulness” (p. 396).
Relationship between mindfulness, flow dispositions, and mental skills adoption. Kee and Wang (2008) used a cluster analysis approach to examine the relationship between mindfulness, flow disposition, and mental skill adoption. Individuals who were more mindful tended to be more likely to experience flow. High mindfulness cluster individuals had higher scores on five of the nine flow dimensions, including challenge-skill balance, clear goals, concentration, sense of control, and loss of self-consciousness (Kee & Wang, 2008). Kee and Wang (2008) proposed that flexible attitudes could “lead to more favorable perception of balance between challenge and ability, making it conducive for flow to occur” (p. 406). Flow is dependent upon how one perceives their ability to overcome challenges; the mindfulness cluster’s increased flexibility allowed them to be less deterred by perceptions of skill and challenges. Kee and Wang (2008) explained the reason for an increased loss of self-consciousness in the high mindfulness group may be a result of increased self-esteem and lower susceptibility to introjections. Cultivation of a sense of unselfconsciousness in mindfulness (i.e., letting go of ego) could result in greater flow.
Mindfulness increases some aspects of flow. Aherne et al. (2011) investigated mindfulness for its ability to strengthen attention and increase flow. Before 2011, there was qualitative research by Jackson (1995) and a quantitative cluster analysis by Kee and Wang (2008) that linked mindfulness with the flow experience. However, the design of previous studies did not suggest that mindfulness caused athletes to experience greater flow. Aherne et al. (2011) tested the effects of a mindfulness training program on athletes’ flow experience during competitive training and found that mindfulness increased global flow scores and specific flow dimensions. Like Kee and Wang (2008) and Sheldon, Prentice, and Halusic (2015), Aherne et al. (2011) found that mindfulness specifically increased the flow subscales of clear goals and sense of control. Aherne et al. (2011) suggested this may relate to attention; those who are more mindful tend to be more aware of their goals and may also have a greater sense of control. Kee and Wang (2008) did not find that mindfulness increased scores on flow subscales for loss of self-consciousness, challenge-skill balance, or concentration.
Propensity for experiencing flow: The roles of cognitive flexibility and mindfulness. Moore (2013) examined cognitive skills related to flow disposition and stated that “mindfulness can predict flow disposition” (p. 328). Moore (2013) asserted that this link may be because both mindfulness and flow require self-regulation of attention in the present moment. Cognitive flexibility and mindfulness are codependent (Moore, 2013). Cognitive flexibility is creativity and freedom from cognitive rigidity; it includes at least one of three factors: (a) the ability to adapt to change; (b) the ability to think of a variety of categories and concepts; and (c) the ability to perceive multiple perspectives or thoughts (Moore, 2013). Cognitive flexibility may be necessary to maintain flow as challenges and demands of an activity change.