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flow (psychology)

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Flow, in the context of psychology, is a state of intense engagement, focus and contentment in the present moment and current activity. Sometimes referred to as being “in the zone,” flow states are known to enhance creativity and performance and spark innovation. The experiences are considered profound enough to improve the individual’s overall satisfaction in life.

Although flow experiences have been observed for thousands of years, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term in 1975. The psychologist was interviewing artists about their tendency to become so absorbed in their work that they lost awareness of anything else, including basic needs for food, water and sleep. The term flow arose from the way many of the artists described the experience as like being carried along on a current of water.

In his 2004 TED talk, Csíkszentmihályi explained the phenomenon as a function of cognitive processing limits: the intense concentration on the activity at hand prevents the capacity for other processing, such as rumination or awareness of hunger. The first and most integral element of a flow experience is intense absorption that precludes multitasking, daydreaming or attention to other matters. The individual is working at the limits of his capabilities, envisioning steps forward almost simultaneously with taking action. The activity is intrinsically enjoyable and there is a sense of effortlessness. Satisfaction in the actions and immediate internal feedback about their success are also pleasurable. Temporal sensing is altered so that, typically, much more time elapses during a flow experience than the individual would have estimated.

Flow experiences have been studied and applied to inform many areas of endeavor including personal growth, workplace psychology, metacognitive therapy, music, sports, education, mindfulness training, game design and gaming. Although the ability to experience flow varies from one individual to another, the phenomenon can be encouraged through approaches such as attention training, meditation, maintaining a sense of curiosity, dedicating oneself to lifelong learning and exploring what particular types of activities flow for you.

This was last updated in December 2018

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