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Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.[1]

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate 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.[2]

Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the zone, in the groove, or keeping your head in the game.


Components of flow

Anxiety Arousal Flow Control Relaxation Boredom Apathy Worry Enlarge image
Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level. Clickable.[3]

Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following nine factors as accompanying an experience of flow:[4][5]

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.[3]
  2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.


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.[5] The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase "go with the flow".

Group flow

Csíkszentmihályi suggests several ways in which a group could work together so that each individual member could achieve flow. The characteristics of such a group include:

  • Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables; thus work primarily standing and moving.
  • Playground design: Charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness (here also craziness has a place), safe place (here all may say what is otherwise only thought), result wall, open topics
  • Parallel, organized working
  • Target group focus
  • Advancement of existing one (prototyping)
  • Increase in efficiency through visualization
  • Existence of differences among participants represents an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.



Applications suggested by Csíkszentmihályi versus other practitioners

Only Csíkszentmihályi seems to have published suggestions for extrinsic applications of the Flow concept, such as design methods for playgrounds to elicit the Flow experience. Other practitioners of Csíkszentmihályi's Flow concept focus on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement or self-help. Reinterpretations of Csíkszentmihályi's Flow process exist to improve performance in areas as diverse as business, piano improvisation, sport psychology, computer programming and standup comedy.


Young boy, painting a model

In education, there is the concept of overlearning which seems to be an important factor in this technique, in that Csíkszentmihályi[6] states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualizing the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions. Challenging assignments that (slightly) stretch one's skills lead to flow.[7]

Around 2000, it came to the attention of Csíkszentmihályi that the principles and practices of the Montessori Method of education seemed to purposefully set up continuous flow opportunities and experiences for students. Csíkszentmihályi and psychologist Kevin Rathunde embarked on a multi-year study of student experiences in Montessori settings and traditional educational settings. The research supported observations that students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings.[8][9][10]


Musicians, especially improvisational soloists may experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument. [11] Groups of drummers experience a state of Flow when they sense a collective energy that drives the beat, something they refer to as 'getting into the groove'. Bass guitarists often describe a state of Flow when properly playing between the percussion and melody as being 'in the pocket'.


The concept of "being in the zone" during an athletic performance fits within Csíkszentmihályi's description of the Flow experience, and theories and applications of "being in the zone" and its relationship with athletic competitive advantage are topics studied in the field of sport psychology.[12]

Timothy Gallwey's influential works on the inner game of sports such as golf and tennis described the mental coaching and attitudes which were required to get into the zone and so fully internalise mastery of the sport.[13]

Roy Palmer suggests that "being in the zone" may also influence movement patterns as better integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions improves coordination. Many athletes describe the effortless nature of their performance whilst achieving personal bests - see references.

The Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix explained: "I was already on pole, [...] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel."

When challenges and skills are simultaneously above average, a broadly positive experience emerges.[14] Also vital to the flow state is a sense of control, which nevertheless seems simultaneously effortless and masterful. Control and concentration manifest with a transcendence of normal awareness; one aspect of this transcendence is the loss of self-consciousness.[15]

Religion and spirituality

Csíkszentmihályi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western psychology, but as he himself readily acknowledges[citation needed] he was most certainly not the first to quantify the concept of Flow or develop applications based on the concept.

For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science. Other religions, including Christianity, Islam, and The Baha'i Faith, describe Flow as a "state of grace".

The phrase "being at one with things" is a metaphor of Csíkszentmihályi's Flow concept.[citation needed] Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply concepts similar to Flow to aid their mastery of art forms, including, in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Aikido, Cheng Hsin, Kendo and Ikebana. In yogic traditions such as Raja Yoga reference is made to a state of "flow"[16] in the practice of Samyama, a psychological absorption in the object of meditation.[17]


Game designers, particularly video and computer games, benefit from integration of flow principles into gameplay design.[18]

Professions and work

Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state, sometimes referred to as the "Zone" or "Hackmode" [19], when developing in an undistracted state. Stock market operators often use the term "in the pipe" to describe the psychological state of flow when trading during high volume days and market corrections.

See also



  1. ^ Citations of Csíkszentmihályi's 1990 book about flow on Google Scholar
  2. ^ Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p.91 ISBN 055380491X
  3. ^ a b Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding Flow, 1997.
  4. ^ Csikszentmihalyi, M. & K. Rathunde. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. In J. E. Jacobs (Ed.) Nebraska symposium on motivation, Vol. 40: Developmental perspectives on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 60. ISBN 0803292104
  5. ^ a b Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0875892612. 
  6. ^ Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2. 
  7. ^ Snyder, C.R.; Lopez, Shane J. (2007), "11", Positive Psychology, Sage Publications, Inc., ISBN 076192633X 
  8. ^ Rathunde, K., & Csikszetnmihalyi, M. (2005). Middle school students' motivation and quality of experience: A comparison of Montessori and traditional school environments. American Journal of Education, 111(3), 341-71.
  9. ^ Rathunde, K., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). The social context of middle school: Teachers, friends, and activities in Montessori and traditional school environments. Elementary School Journal, 106(1), 59-79.
  10. ^ Rathunde, K., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2006). The developing person: An experiential perspective. In R.M. Lerner (Ed.), W. Damon (Series Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol.1. Theoretical models of human development (6th ed.). New York: Wiley.
  11. ^ Parncutt, Richard & McPherson, Gary E. (2002) The Science & Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning Book, Oxford University Press US, p. 119. Retrieved on 2009-02-07.
  12. ^ Janet A Young, Michelle D Pain. "The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports". Athletic Insight. Retrieved 2008-05-08. 
  13. ^ Timothy Galwey (1976). Inner Tennis - Playing the Game. 
  14. ^ Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1988) Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. 323.
  15. ^ Hunter, Jeremy, and Csikszentmihalyi (2000)”The Phenomenology of Body-Mind: The Contrasting Cases of Flow in Sports and Contemplation. Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 11 No. 3-4 p. 15.
  16. ^ Yoga Sutras 3.9-3.16: Witnessing Subtle Transitions with Samyama --
  17. ^ Sansonese, J. Nigro (1994). The Body of Myth: Mythology, Shamanic Trance, and the Sacred Geography of the Body. Inner Traditions. ISBN 9780892814091. Source: [1] (accessed: Friday March 6, 2009), p.26.
  18. ^ Chen, J. (2008) Flow in Games Retrieved on 2008/05/16.
  19. ^ "Hackmode", Jargon File


  • Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092820-4
  • Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02411-4 (a popular exposition emphasizing technique)
  • Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-200409-X
  • Egbert, Joy (2003), "A Study of Flow Theory in the Foreign Language Classroom", The Modern Language Journal 87 (4): 499–518, doi:10.1111/1540-4781.00204 .
  • Jackson, Susan A. & Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers. ISBN 0-88011-876-8
  • Mainemelis, Charalampos (2001), "When the Muse Takes It All: A Model for the Experience of Timelessness in Organizations", The Academy of Management Review 26 (4): 548–565, doi:10.2307/3560241 .
  • Shainberg, Lawrence (1989-04-09), "FINDING 'THE ZONE'", New York Times Magazine, 

External links


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