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In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time.[1] Flow is the melting together of action and consciousness; the state of finding a balance between a skill and how challenging that task is. It requires a high level of concentration; however, it should be effortless. Flow is used as a coping skill for stress and anxiety when productively pursuing a form of leisure that matches one's skill set.[2]


Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience. Additionally, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:[6]

Flow is so named because, during Csíkszentmihályi's 1975 interviews, several people described their "flow" experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along: "'It was like floating,' 'I was carried on by the flow.'"[7][failed verification][8]

Mihaly Csikszentmihályi and others began researching flow after Csikszentmihályi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work.[9] Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. The theory of flow came about when Csikszentmihályi tried to understand the phenomenon experienced by these artists. Flow research became prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, with Csikszentmihályi and his colleagues in Italy still at the forefront. Researchers interested in optimal experiences and emphasizing positive experiences, especially in places such as schools and the business world, also began studying the theory of flow at this time.[5]

Generally, people have the ability to decide what they will give their full attention to. This excludes basic distinctive feelings, such as hunger and pain. However, when one experiences flow, they are completely immersed in a certain activity. This is a subconscious phenomenon. People who are experiencing flow are no longer aware of the environment around them, such as the time, others around, distractions, and even basic bodily needs.[14] However, when one is in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs.[15] According to Csikszentmihályi, this event occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.[16]

The flow state has been described by Csikszentmihályi as the "optimal experience" in that one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience.[3] Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and "depends on the ability" of the individual.[3] One's capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals leads not only to the optimal experience but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.[3]

The FQ requires individuals to identify definitions of flow and situations in which they believe that they have experienced flow, followed by a section that asks them to evaluate their personal experiences in these flow-inducing situations. The FQ identifies flow as multiple constructs, therefore allowing the results to be used to estimate differences in the likelihood of experiencing flow across a variety of factors. Another strength of the FQ is that it does not assume that everyone's flow experiences are the same. Because of this, the FQ is the ideal measure for estimating the prevalence of flow. However, the FQ has some weaknesses that more recent methods have set out to address. The FQ does not allow for a measurement of the intensity of flow during specific activities. This method also does not measure the influence of the ratio of challenge to skill on the flow state.[17]

The ESM requires individuals to fill out the experience sampling form (ESF) at eight randomly chosen time intervals throughout the day. The purpose of this is to understand subjective experiences by estimating the time intervals that individuals spend in specific states during everyday life. The ESF is made up of 13 categorical items and 29 scaled items. The purpose of the categorical items is to determine the context and motivational aspects of the current actions (these items include: time, location, companionship/desire for companionship, activity being performed, reason for performing activity). Because these questions are open-ended, the answers need to be coded by researchers. This needs to be done carefully so as to avoid any biases in the statistical analysis. The scaled items are intended to measure the levels of a variety of subjective feelings that the individual may be experiencing. The ESM is more complex than the FQ and contributes to the understanding of how flow plays out in a variety of situations, however the possible biases make it a risky choice.[17]

Some researchers are not satisfied with the methods mentioned above and have set out to create their own scales. The scales developed by Jackson and Eklund are the most commonly used in research, mainly because they are still consistent with Csíkszentmihályi's definition of flow and consider flow as being both a state and a trait. Jackson and Eklund created two scales that have been proven to be psychometrically valid and reliable: the flow state scale-2 (which measures flow as a state), and the dispositional flow scale-2 (designed to measure flow as either a general trait or domain-specific trait). The statistical analysis of the individual results from these scales gives a much more complete understanding of flow than the ESM and the FQ.[17]

The flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is more likely to occur when the task or activity is wholeheartedly engaged for intrinsic purposes.[16][19] Passive activities such as taking a bath or even watching TV, usually do not elicit a flow experience because active engagement is prerequisite to entering the flow state.[20][21] While the activities that induce flow vary and may perhaps be multifaceted, Csikszentmihályi asserts that the experience of flow is similar whatever the activity.[22]

It has been argued that the antecedent factors of flow are interrelated, and as such, a perceived balance between challenges and skills requires that the goals are clear, and feedback is effective. Thus, the coordination of perceived demands and task skills can be identified as the central precondition of flow experience.[24]

In 1987, Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli published the eight-channel model of flow .[25] Antonella Delle Fave, who worked with Fausto Massimini at the University of Milan, calls this graph the Experience Fluctuation Model.[26] The model depicts the channels of experience that result from different levels of perceived challenges and perceived skills. The graph illustrates another aspect of flow: it is more likely to occur when the activity is a higher-than-average challenge (above the center point) and the individual has above-average skills (to the right of the center point).[16] The center of the graph where the sectors meet represents the average level of challenge and skill across all individual daily activities. The further from the center an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being, whether it is flow or anxiety or boredom or relaxation.[19]

Several problems of the model have been discussed in literature.[24][27] One is that it does not ensure the perceived balance between challenges and skills which is said to be the central precondition of flow experience. Individuals with a low average level of skills and a high average level of challenges (or the converse) do not necessarily experience a match between skills and challenges when both are above their individual average.[28] Another study found that low challenge situations which were surpassed by skill were associated with enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness, which, they claim, is contrary to flow theory.[29]

Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety. The state of apathy is characterized by easy challenges and low skill level requirements, resulting in a general lack of interest in the activity. Boredom is a slightly different state that occurs when challenges are few, but one's skill level exceeds those challenges causing one to seek higher challenges. A state of anxiety occurs when challenges are high enough to exceed perceived skill level, causing distress and uneasiness. These states in general prevent achieving the balance necessary for flow.[31] Csíkszentmihályi has said, "If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills."[6]

There is scant research on the autotelic personality, but results of the few studies that have been conducted suggest that indeed some people are more likely to experience flow than others. One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) found that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for "high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth" compared to those without an autotelic personality.[19] It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to experience flow.

Experimental evidence shows that a balance between individual skills, and demands of the task (compared to boredom and overload) only elicits the flow experience in individuals having an internal locus of control[33] or a habitual action orientation.[34] Several correlational studies found need for achievement to be a personal characteristic that fosters flow experiences.[35][36][37] 041b061a72


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