The Psychology of Flow (in under 300 words)

Flow state
What is it like to be fully alive, right now, engaged with what you are doing? That’s the psychology of flow.

When the happiness and creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was studying how painters work, he noticed an odd thing. When their painting was going well they didn’t care about getting tired, hungry or uncomfortable, they just carried on.

But when the painting was finished, they rapidly lost interest in it.

What was this special state of mind that seemed to absorb the whole of your being? Csikszentmihalyi called it a ‘flow state’. It’s the experience of being fully engaged with what you’re currently doing.

When you’re in a flow state:

  • an hour can pass in the blink of an eye,
  • you feel what you are doing is important,
  • you’re not self-conscious,
  • action and awareness merges,
  • you feel in full control,
  • and the experience is intrinsically rewarding.

To create a flow experience, you need:

  • to be internally motivated, i.e. you are doing the activity mainly for its own sake,
  • the task should stretch your skills almost to the limits, but not so much that it makes you too anxious,
  • there should be clear short-term goals for what you are trying to achieve,
  • and you should get immediate feedback on how you are doing, i.e. you can see how the painting, photo, blog post etc. is turning out.

The experience of flow has been studied amongst surgeons, writers, artists, scientists, athletes and people just socialising and playing games. The experience of peak performance is very similar, whatever the activity.

Flow states require a balance, though, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

It’s not always easy to achieve but being in a state of flow is a beautiful thing.

Image credit: Catherine Mullhaupt

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 26 June 2012

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Images: Creative Commons License