Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an 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 complete absorption in what one does.
Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.
Flow has many of the same characteristics as (the positive aspects of) hyperfocus. However, hyperfocus is not always described in such universally glowing terms. For examples, some cases of spending “too much” time playing video games, or of getting side-tracked and pleasurably absorbed by one aspect of an assignment or task to the detriment of the assignment in general. In some cases, hyperfocus can “grab” a person, perhaps causing him or her to appear unfocused or to start several projects, but complete few.
Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be in the moment, present, in the zone, on a roll, wired in, in the groove, on fire, in tune, centered,singularly focused, going ham, or going beast mode.
Components of flow
Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- merging of action and awareness
- a loss of reflective self-consciousness
- a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
- experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience.
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. The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase go with the flow.