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How to Bake a Flow Cake

written by Gloria Park 8 February 2007

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.

Figure skating in flow

Figure skating in flow

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.

Tyler’s Cake courtesy of Fays cakes
Japan Open – Figure Skating in flow courtesy of tpower1978

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Dave Shearon 8 February 2007 - 2:37 pm

Gloria, have you seen any research on whether video games tend to create flow states? It seems to me they might, especially for younger players, and that the experience of flow might account for the attractive power of such games. But, I don’t know of about research.

Senia.com - Positive Psychology Blog 8 February 2007 - 3:14 pm

This is a super overview of the flow literature. Thank you. I’ve always been especially interested in Csikszentmihalyi’s description of the autotelic personality.
I love how the title combines your interests in baking and in sports psychology! Love it!

Jeff 9 February 2007 - 8:00 am


Your piece was a welcome addition. I had hoped someone would provide a more robust coverage of flow in sports.

Have you read The Sport Psych Handbook by Shane Murphy? That’s was a more helpful read than Flow in Sports. The latter was full of descriptive information and not much like a manual for athletes. It is great to read about flow, but how about increasing our experience of it, if you follow me? Ditto for Flow the Psych of Optimal…wow I’d really like to have more flow, Csikszentmihalyi…help me out here bro’.

–Jeff D.

Gloria Park 9 February 2007 - 10:35 am

Hi Dave!
I did a quick search last night and wasn’t able to find much published about the effectiveness of video games as a flow-inducing activity. Given the nature of the activity, I would think playing video games are conducive to creating flow states, not just for youth but for everyone, but would depend on a few factors. I was surprised, however, to find that Flow theory is studied by the makers of computer and virtual sofware and video games to create affectively effective user interfaces. What an interesting application of Flow! Hope you’re well 🙂

Gloria Park 9 February 2007 - 11:07 am

Hi Jeff,
I agree – I wish there was more instructive information out there, but I thought Flow In Sports at least prescribed a vocabulary for the lay sportsman or woman to talk about flow. I sometimes use the gym as a test kitchen for creating flow. I don’t like going to the gym… I’d much rather get a workout in on the ice any day, but lately I’ve been playing around trying to “make” flow. I get on the treadmill and set the incline at 3-4 and adjust the speed until it’s just hard enough for me to keep up with the pace at a brisk walk. I set my ipod to play a few of my favorite songs, and sometimes (not every time) I will experience something like flow, and I can stay on the treadmill like that for an hour or so (a long time for someone who hates the treadmill). 🙂 When this happens, I leave the gym feeling energized, but very peaceful and lucid at the same time… hard to explain, but different than what I usually feel after a workout.

Anyway, thanks reading and for your great feedback on all of these blog postings!


Jeff 9 February 2007 - 11:53 pm

A question for Gloria. What is the most parsimonius way to achieve flow regularly and to assess for flow? Stated differently, now that there is abundant descriptive data about flow, where is the applied theory of flow as it applies to generating the trait or state? An oversimplification might be: challenge yourself…but how do you operationalize the definitions of Challenge, Skill, Clear Feedback, Sense of Control?

One random thought is that if you are feeling flow regularly, do whatever you are doing just more of it. Another idea that pops up is that making life more game-like would possibly create flow. Finally, I know Seligman’s exercise Using a Signature Strength in a New Way is a reliable route to flow. Also see rescheduling your day’s activities.

This is for Dave:
Have you checked out Ludologists? These gals and guys study game theory especially in video gaming. Isn’t flow much like playing? In both you lose your sense of self to an extent, you get absorbed if it is a good game (whatever that means), you basically get all the goodies from flow when you play intensely. Also you may want to check out Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development…it seems a very similar concept to the Challenge Skills Balance.

Another fun avenue to explore is a game based on biofeedback, sort of a primer in meditation. It is called Wild Divine. http://www.wilddivine.com/Affiliate2/

Finally, I wanted to share this link with you: a game about competitive relaxation. It is here: http://www.boingboing.net/2005/05/09/relaxation_game_assi.html.

GAMING is not Junk Flow…flow is flow.

Jeff 10 February 2007 - 12:00 am

One more thing then I’ll shut up. Gloria, have you ever heard of Speed-Play or Fartlek Training. Its a scandinavian method for developing speed, endurance etc for runners that is similar to interval training but with a positive psych twist. You get a bouncy ball or some sort of nerf ball and with a partner you run over fields or whatever and toss and try to tag the other person. You could probably use a frisbee too. This might help with the monotonous nature of treadmilling.

A variant on this idea is the Hash House Harriers (running club): “A club for alcoholics with a running problem”. These are groups of people who play running games and incidentally get into excellent shape along the way. Its often cross country. Oh and the drinking is optional.

Jeff 11 February 2007 - 9:16 pm

One last idea, I read that you were a champion figure skater. Are there opportunities to do that for your cardio vice the treadmill?

John Yeager 19 February 2007 - 1:02 pm

Gloria: Sorry for the delayed response to your wonderful article. You do a great job in deconstructing the flow state into a very understandable and meaningful perspective.

John Y.


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