Gloria Park, MAPP '06, is a doctoral student in Exercise and Sport Psychology at Temple University. Currently, she works as a Program Coordinator at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and is an Assistant Instructor for the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Full bio.
Gloria's articles are here.
Have you ever caught yourself so immersed and absorbed in an activity that hours pass and you feel as though you’ve only been doing it for minutes? Have you ever experienced the sensation of action and awareness merging together into one fluid state? This experience is called flow.
Flow experiences are optimal experiences that provide another pathway to happiness and well-being in life, in addition to the pleasant life and the meaningful life. According to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the world is a space that is filled with a chaotic commotion of different stimuli. Finding and constructing order in this universe and being engaged with the world around us is an essential aspect of experiencing flow, as well as the enabler of the good life: “Viewed through the experiential lens of flow, a good life is one that is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”
Flow is often characterized by the sensation of distorted time and space, where the self and environment cease to exist in conscious perception, tasks become seemingly effortless, and total immersion in the present enables long periods of concentration and focus with minimal effort. Achieving a flow state is likened to striking a delicate balance between relinquishing control of certain variables, while exerting perfectly orchestrated control over others – It requires unconscious control and conscious surrender. Flow experiences are also autotelic, or intrinsically fun and rewarding. It is being consumed by what you do until you no longer exist in the equation.
Flow is one part consciousness, one part attention, and two parts magic, but the good news is that the likelihood of experiencing this enigmatic state of being can be increased, given there are specific conditions in place.
First, a balance between challenge and skill must be present. This balance is one of the fundamental ingredients to achieving flow states, and is found at the intersection where your skills and competencies match the challenge. The activity should be just challenging enough to stretch your limits, but not too easy as to bore you.
Two other ingredients necessary for attaining a flow state are clear goals and unambiguous feedback. Having a clear proximal goal will enable you to attend to pertinent stimuli in the environment that will help you achieve the goal. Unambiguous feedback provides information on the progress of reaching the goal, and also serves as an important motivational agent to keep you moving forward toward that goal.
More Likely in Sports
Unfortunately, even with all of the components in place, it’s not guaranteed that you will experience flow. There are certain activities, however, that are especially conducive to flow experiences, such as engaging in sport or physical activity. As a recent graduate of the MAPP program, and as a doctoral student in Sport and Exercise Psychology, I was happy to learn that Csikszentmihalyi discovered that those involved in sports were more likely to have flow experiences than those who were involved in just about any other profession, since this intrinsically challenging activity provides the ideal incubator for flow. The reason why sport is such a fertile ground for flow is because the challenges inherent are never clearly defined. The varying challenges (physical, mental, technical, environmental, or meeting nutritional and energy requirements) provide a myriad of opportunities calling athletes to action, while the skills (and confidence in skills) always have room to grow.If you’re a sports fan, I’m certain you’ve been captivated by witnessing the peak performance of an athlete, where they appear to be moving with little or no effort–perfect in form and filled with grace and agility. These moments are important to athletes in terms of building roadmaps to future peak performances, and are often referred to as “being in the zone” or “in the groove”. For elite athletes, the implications of flow are huge since often accompanies their most profound and meaningful victories. Flow plays a role in cultivating excellence by offering a portal into the infinite possibilities of the human body and spirit. For the athletes who are lucky enough to experience it, it gives them a taste of their own potential for excellence.
From the Process and Challenge, not the Outcome
What does this mean for the rest of us? While it is important for many to be accomplished in their respective sports, enjoying and appreciating the activity has value in its own right, something competitive athletes often forget. Ultimately, satisfaction with a sporting experience comes from the process and challenge, rather than from the outcome. In this sense, winning and losing are truly irrelevant, and by experiencing flow (both on a small and large scale) we can all reap the benefits, experience the beauty in sport, and marvel in the glory of sport participation without ever standing on top of an Olympic podium.
As my colleague John Yeager presented in a previous post, sport and physical activity can be a vehicle for happiness. Pursuing an active lifestyle in the quest for the flow experiences that can help us all grow as humans, and enable each of us to experience this aspect of the good life.
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). The concept of flow. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 89-105). New York: Oxford University Press.
Jackson, Susan A. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Human Kinetics. ISBN: 0880118768
Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.