Happiness What Is a State of Flow? By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial process Updated on November 10, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Carly Snyder, MD Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Tom Merton / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Is Flow? Benefits of a Flow State Characteristics Examples Flow vs. Hyperfocus How to Achieve Frequently Asked Questions If you have ever felt completely absorbed in something, you might have been experiencing a mental state that psychologists refer to as flow. Achieving this state can help people feel greater enjoyment, energy, and involvement. Imagine for a moment that you are running a race. Your attention is focused on the movements of your body, the power of your muscles, the force of your lungs, and the feel of the street beneath your feet. You are living in the moment, utterly absorbed in the present activity. Time seems to fall away. You are tired, but you barely notice. This is an example of a flow state. In this article, learn more about how flow states are defined and some of the major benefits of experiencing flow. Also, explore some of the characteristics of this state and what you can do to improve your chances of reaching flow. What Is Flow? Flow is a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as a state of complete immersion in an activity. Being immersed can be defined as a state of focus in which a person is completely absorbed and engrossed in their work. While in a flow state, people are highly involved and focused on what they are doing. "The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost," Csíkszentmihályi said in an interview with Wired magazine. Flow experiences can occur in different ways for different people. It often happens when you are doing something that you enjoy and in which you are quite skilled. This state is often associated with the creative arts, such as painting, drawing, or writing. However, it can also occur while engaging in a sport, such as skiing, tennis, soccer, dancing, or running. Benefits of a Flow State In addition to making activities more enjoyable, flow also has a number of other advantages. Emotional Regulation With increased flow, people experience growth toward emotional complexity. This can help people develop skills that allow them to regulate their emotions more effectively. Fulfillment and Happiness People in a flow state enjoy what they are doing more. Because the task becomes more enjoyable, they are also more likely to find it rewarding and fulfilling. Research also suggests that flow states may be linked to increased levels of happiness, satisfaction, and self-actualization. Intrinsic Motivation Because flow is a positive mental state, it can help increase motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves doing things for internal rewards (how they make you feel) vs. external rewards (such as prizes or payment). Engagement and Performance People in a flow state feel fully involved in the task at hand. Researchers have found that flow can enhance performance in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics, and artistic creativity. Learning, Skill Development, and Creativity Because the act of achieving flow indicates a substantial mastery of a certain skill, people have to keep seeking new challenges and information in order to maintain this state. Flow states often take place during creative tasks, which can help inspire greater creative and artistic pursuits. Recap Flow has a number of benefits. It is associated with increased happiness, higher intrinsic motivation, greater creativity, and better emotional regulation, among other positive effects. Characteristics of Flow According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur: The activity is intrinsically rewarding. There are clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable. There is a complete focus on the activity itself. People experience feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome. People have feelings of serenity and a loss of self-consciousness. There is immediate feedback. People know that the task is doable and there is a balance between skill level and the challenge presented. People experience a lack of awareness of their physical needs. There is strong concentration and focused attention. People experience timelessness, or a distorted sense of time, that involves feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing. What Happens to the Brain During Flow Research has found that there are changes in brain activity during flow states. While research is ongoing, two theories that have been proposed: Transient hypofrontality hypothesis: Some research has found that being in a flow state is associated with a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is essential in higher cognitive functions, including memory and self-consciousness. Reduced activity in this region may explain why people experience a distorted sense of time and loss of self-consciousness.Synchronization theory: According to this theory, flow allows certain regions of the brain to communicate with one another more effectively. While in a flow state, there may be an increase in activity in the frontal cortex, contributing to increased higher thinking. Other research suggests that there is also an increase in the activity of dopamine (a brain chemical involved in pleasure and motivation) when people are experiencing flow. A 2021 review suggested that the brain's locus coeruleus-norepinepherine system (LC-NE) is involved in different aspects of flow. This system helps regulate control over engaging or disengaging tasks by releasing norepinepherine in response to stimuli. Examples of a Flow State While flow experiences can happen as part of everyday life, there are also important practical applications in various areas including education, sports, and the workplace. Flow in Creative Pursuits Flow is perhaps most often associated with creativity. For example, a writer experiencing a state of flow may become so immersed in their work that time passes without them even noticing. The words flow easily and quickly. An artist might spend hours working on a painting, and emerge with a great deal of progress and a sense that time flew by quickly. Flow in Education Csíkszentmihályi has suggested that overlearning a skill or concept can help people experience flow. Another critical concept in his theory is the idea of slightly extending oneself beyond one's current ability level. This slight stretching of one's current skills can help the individual experience flow. Flow in Sports Engaging in a challenging athletic activity that is doable but presents a slight stretching of your abilities is a good way to achieve flow. Sometimes described by being "in the zone," reaching this state of flow allows an athlete to experience a loss of self-consciousness and a sense of complete mastery of the performance. Flow in the Workplace Flow can also occur when workers are engaged in tasks where they are able to focus entirely on the project at hand. For example, a coder might experience this while trying to solve a programming problem, or an interior designer might achieve flow while brainstorming ideas for a new project. Recap Flow often happens during creative activities and athletic pursuits. But flow states aren't just something experienced by artists, writers, or athletes. Flow can happen anytime a person is deeply engaged in a task, including during learning activities and work-related projects. Flow vs. Hyperfocus A flow state can resemble what is referred to as hyperfocus, which involves an intense focus or fixation on a specific task that holds a person's interest. Hyperfocus is often a characteristic of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Hyperfocus and flow can seem very similar, but there are important differences. When experiencing hyperfocus, people often become so immersed in a task that they lose sight of everything else to the point that it negatively affects their life. Flow, on the other hand, is a more beneficial state that can be conducive to well-being. Another significant distinction is that hyperfocus requires a person to be highly interested in the tasks, while flow can happen with almost any task that a person finds challenging, engaging, or rewarding. How to Achieve Flow It takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes of focused attention to reach a flow state. Once in flow, it may last from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. However, it is possible to achieve flow more than once a day, given the right conditions. So what can you do to increase your chances of achieving flow? There are some strategies you can use to help set the stage for entering a flow state. Set Clear Goals In his book, Csíkszentmihályi explains that flow is likely to occur when an individual is faced with a task that has clear goals that require specific responses. A game of chess is a good example of when a flow state might occur. For the duration of a competition, the player has very specific goals and responses, allowing attention to be focused entirely on the game during the period of play. Eliminate Distractions It's more difficult to experience flow if there are things in your environment competing for your attention. Try reducing distractions so you can fully focus on the task at hand. You might wear noise-canceling headphones, turn off or put away your phone, and so on. Add an Element of Challenge "Flow also happens when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges," Csíkszentmihályi explains. "If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills." Practice Meditation and Mindfulness Meditation and mindfulness may help you get into a flow state more readily. Mindfulness involves becoming more attuned to the present moment. One study found that practicing mindfulness regularly helped athletes experience a flow state and improved their performance. Choose a Pursuit You Enjoy You aren't likely to achieve flow if you are doing an activity you truly dislike. Focus on trying to achieve flow while working on something you love. Recap Having a specific goal, choosing a task that is moderately challenging, pursuing an enjoyable project, and minimizing the distractions around you can all help you better achieve a state of flow. A Word From Verywell Achieving a state of flow can be a great way to make the activities you pursue more engaging and enjoyable. Not only do people often perform better when they are in this state of flow, but they may also be able to improve their skills. Fortunately, it is also a skill you can learn to achieve with practice. It is important to remember that flow is a dynamic and ever-changing state. As your skill levels increase, you will need to continue to adjust the level of challenge that is needed to help initiate a state of flow. Frequently Asked Questions What does flow mean in psychology? Flow is a state of mind that occurs when a person is totally immersed in an activity. It can occur during a wide variety of tasks such as when a person is learning, being creative, or participating in a sport. When in a flow state, people pay no attention to distractions and time seems to pass without any notice. How can I get into a flow state? Flow states often occur when a person is highly interested in what they are working on, but there are things that you can do to foster a flow state. Doing something you love, adding a little bit of a challenge, and minimizing the distractions around you can all help you achieve flow. Can being in a flow state help me study? Being in a flow state can help you focus on what you are learning and be more productive when you are studying. To do this, find a quiet place to study, set a goal for how much you will accomplish during your study session, and choose study materials that are within your skill level but still just a little bit challenging. 10 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. TED. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness. Bonaiuto M, Mao Y, Roberts S, et al. Optimal experience and personal growth: Flow and the consolidation of place identity. Front Psychol. 2016;7:1654. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01654 Koehn S, Morris T. The relationship between performance and flow state in tennis competition. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2012;52(4):437-47. Šimleša M, Guegan J, Blanchard E, Tarpin-Bernard F, Buisine S. The flow engine framework: A cognitive model of optimal human experience. 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Mindfulness training enhances flow state and mental health among baseball players in Taiwan. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2018;12:15-21. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S188734 By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Happiness Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.