What is Flow?

Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 1988, 1990, 1997) formulated the theory of flow after extensive interviews with athletes, artists, surgeons, chess players, and rock climbers who shared a similar set of features when they engaged in activities. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) described flow as follows:

In the flow state, action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which he is in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future. (p. 36)

 Kaufman, Glass, and Pineau (2017) note that sport and high-performance psychologists  have recognized for nearly half a century that certain psychological factors help athletes achieve optimal performance. Such states include peak experience (Ravizza, 1977), peak performance (Privette, 1981), the zone (Young & Pain, 1999), and flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The operationalized experience of flow is the most common term for an optimal psychology and will be the term that appears throughout this project.

Flow is a popular construct in sport psychology, positive psychology, occupational psychology, and popular culture (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1988, 1990, 1997). It is an optimal quality of experience that occurs when an individual perceives a balance between the challenges of a situation and his or her abilities to meet those demands (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; see figure 1.1). When individuals experience a balance between skills and challenges, their consciousness becomes highly ordered and engaged in a task, which promotes a sense of effortless action and peak performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The dimensions of the flow experience in sport.

Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) proposed that the altered state of consciousness that characterizes the flow experience has nine experiential dimensions:

1. Clear goals

2. Unambiguous feedback

3. Challenge-skill balance

4. Concentration on task

5. Action-awareness merging

6. Sense of control

7. Time transformation

8. Autotelic experience

9. Loss of self-consciousness

Clear goals, unambiguous feedback, and the challenge-skill balance are the necessary antecedents or conditions for flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1997). The nine dimensions of flow relate to enhanced athletic performance.

1.      Clear goals. When in flow, athletes describe having a single-minded focus on their goal, which directs their action and provides focus (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). When athletes have clear goals, they know what needs to happen, engage with the task, and let go of non-task-relevant stimuli that may interfere with performance.

2.      Unambiguous feedback. Clear feedback informs athletes of ways to adjust their course. When athletes remain aware of feedback, they stay connected to the activity and control their direction (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

3.      Challenge skill-balance. When individuals perceive a balance between their skills and challenges, it creates a sense of confidence that enables them to “convert stressors into challenges” that are enjoyable (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 17).

4.      Concentration on task. Concentration empowers athletes to remain completely focused in the present moment on task-relevant stimuli. Complete concentration is “one of the characteristics of optimal experience mentioned most often” (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 25).

5.   Action-awareness merging. Merging results in a feeling of body/ mind unity and unity between an athlete and the sport itself (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

6.   Sense of control. Control helps athletes overcome fears. When in flow, athletes often report feeling they can do no wrong (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

7.   Time transformation. When athletes are in flow they feel as if time speeds up, stops, or slows down (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

8.   Autotelic experience. Flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience that athletes choose for its own sake, even at great cost (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The word autotelic derives from two Greek words that describe doing something for its own sake (auto = self; telos = goal) (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). When athletes are in flow, they engage in time-consuming, challenging, and often dangerous activities for the sheer sake of enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, & Nakamura, 2005).

9.   Loss of self-consciousness. Since the earliest flow studies (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975), research participants described feeling reduced self-awareness, including a transcendence of self. Lack of self-consciousness results in an enjoyable experience because athletes no longer experience concern, fear, or self-doubt; rather, they experience a state free from the worries or negative thoughts of daily life (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Csikszentmihalyi (1990) described, “being able to forget temporarily who we are seems to be very enjoyable” (p. 64). Sadlo (2016) explained “suspended self-awareness is linked to the optimal human experience by which flow is famously described—joy, rapture, even ecstasy” (p. 376). A loss of self-awareness also improves performance. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) explained,

      The unselfconscious athlete is not concerned with criticism, real or imagined. There is no way of failure, no consideration of an unsuccessful outcome and what this might mean in terms of evaluation. These moments of unselfconscious action allow potential to be fully realized, without the limiting influence of worry. Athletes treasure such moments, as they characterize freedom in movement and convey a sense of power. (p. 68)

 The conditions of flow and flow activities.

Flow usually occurs in structured flow activities with predefined challenges and feedback for success. Examples of highly structured flow activities include sports, games, work, ritual events, and artistic performances (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). The antecedents of flow (clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenge/skill balance) are most likely to occur during these flow activities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1997). The benefits of flow may extend to other aspects of life. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) stated, “once the keys to flow are understood, the opportunity to develop one’s whole life from a stressful and chaotic chase into something resembling an enjoyable dance emerges” (p. 14). The allure of achieving flow in all of life appears to fuel much of the interest and curiosity into how to maximize the flow state.

Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) called finding a challenge-skill balance “the golden rule of flow” (p. 6). Keller and Landhäusser (2012) suggested that the antecedents of flow reduce to the principle of skills-challenges compatibility, or balance, because this principle requires one to also have a clear goal and relevant feedback. In the context of flow, challenge is a simplification of a more general concept of “opportunities for action” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 36). However, only opportunities for action that require skills can result in flow; therefore, passive experiences (e.g., lying in the sun or watching TV) may be pleasurable but do not result in complete engagement that characterizes flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Skills in the flow equation refer to individuals’ competency to act in a situation (i.e., their level of mastery) (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The challenge-skill balance depends both on acquired skill level, and also on individuals’ subjective evaluation of their competency. Those who can harness confidence to transform stresses into achievements are more prone to experience flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Individuals with this disposition to experience increased flow are said to have an autotelic personality (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

For athletes to experience flow, the challenge-skills balance must be beyond their average level so that athletes give themselves fully over to the activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). As Csikszentmihalyi (1997) explained, “flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable” (p. 30). The outcomes of the challenge-skill balance appear in Figure 1.1.

flow imaggeee.png

Figure 1.1. The quality of experience as a function of the relationship between challenges and skills. Adapted from “Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life” by M, Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, library journal, 122(10), 119. Adapted with permission.

 Csikszentmihalyi (1997) differentiated the consequences of specific challenge-skills ratios as follows:

If challenges are too high one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills one gets relaxed, then bored. If both challenges and skills are perceived to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur. (p. 30)

 The challenge-skill balance reflects how flow leads to personal growth and displays how flow may lead people to seek increasing challenges or increased risk. For people to continuously experience flow, they need to increase the challenge as their skills develop; the challenge-skill balance is not static (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Flow requires individuals to continually develop skills and challenge themselves (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). However, continually taking on increasing challenges can place people in danger. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) stated, “taking risks puts you on the edge of the challenge-skills balance equation, extending challenges (and thus skills) beyond comfort zones” (p. 38).

The Benefits of Flow

Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of her life. If it remains beyond reach, we grow resentful or resign. If it is at least in part achieved, we experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 9)

 The ability to find joy in challenges and motivation for mastery is essential to individual development and cultural evolution (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 2005). Flow facilitates intrinsic motivation and action, pushing people to their limits (Eccles, & Wigfield, 2002; Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Waterman, Schwarts, & Conti, 2008). Flow is an “optimal experience” because individuals feel “cognitively efficient, motivated, and happy” (Moneta & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 277).

Flow is related to peak performance and can be a predictor of performance in sport (Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, & Smethurst, 2001), academic learning (Engeser, Rheinberg, Vollmeyer, & Bischoff, 2005), and in the workplace (Eisenberger, Jones, Stinglhamber, Shanock, & Randall, 2005). Flow is also a predictor of creativity (Perry, 1999). Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) explained,

Research shows that the most memorable and happy moments in people’s lives usually involve a job well done that required skills and concentration or a struggle to overcome a difficult obstacle. People are happy when they have a purpose and are actively involved in trying to reach a challenging goal… It seems that evolution has provided us with a powerful survival mechanism: the feeling of joy we experience when we overcome a challenge. (p. 35)

 Moore (2013) suggested that flow state could be a significant source of well-being and happiness. This may be because flow correlates with persistence in activities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993), enhances creativity (Perry, 1999) and personal expressiveness (Waterman, 1993). Asakawa (2010) highlighted that flow can result in increased self-esteem, a sense of fulfillment and life satisfaction, and psychological resilience. Donner and Csikszentmihalyi (1992) proposed that one benefit of flow is the quality of subjective experience it facilitates; having a positive experience increases productivity. Moore (2013) noted flow may advance clinical interventions as well. Flow is a psychological experience free from self-consciousness, negative emotions that may accompany awareness of the ‘self’. Therefore, Moore (2013) asserted techniques for producing flow could benefit patients with depression and anxiety.