The Psychology of Flow

Young man at computer holding cube

Tom Merton / Getty Images

If you have ever felt completely absorbed in something, you might have been experiencing a mental state that psychologists refer to as flow. Achieving his 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 state of 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.

While in this mental state, people are completely 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 occurs 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.

The Benefits of Flow

In addition to making activities more enjoyable, flow also has a number of other advantages such as:

  • Better emotional regulation: With increased flow, people also experience more growth toward emotional complexity. This can help people develop skills that allow them to regulate their emotions more effectively.
  • Greater enjoyment and fulfillment: People in a flow state enjoy what they are doing more. Because the task becomes more enjoyable, people are also more likely to find it rewarding and fulfilling.
  • Greater happiness: Research also suggests that flow states may be linked to increased levels of happiness, satisfaction, and self-actualization.
  • Greater intrinsic motivation: Because flow is a positive mental state, it can help increase enjoyment and motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves doing things for internal rewards.
  • Increased engagement: People in a flow state feel fully involved in the task at hand.
  • Improved performance: Researchers have found that flow can enhance performance in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics, and artistic creativity.
  • Learning and skill development: 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.
  • More creativity: Flow states often take place during creative tasks, which can help inspire greater creative and artistic pursuits.

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:

  1. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  2. There are clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  3. There is a complete focus on the activity itself.
  4. People experience feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  5. People have feelings of serenity and a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
  6. There is immediate feedback.
  7. People know that the task is doable and there is a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  8. People experience a lack of awareness of their physical needs.
  9. There is strong concentration and focused attention.
  10. People experience timelessness;, or a distorted sense of time, that involves feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.

The Neuroscience of Flow

What exactly happens in the brain when a person is in a flow state? Research has found that there are changes in brain activity during flow states. Other research suggests that there is also an increase in dopamine activity when people are experiencing flow.

Examples

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 hours fly by 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 that seemed to fly 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 writer might experience this while working on a novel or a graphic designer might achieve flow while working on a website illustration.

How to Achieve Flow

So what can you do to increase your chances of achieving flow? Ways to increase your chances of achieving flow:

  • 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 distracting things in your environment so you can fully focus on the task at hand.
  • 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."
  • Choose something you enjoy: You aren't likely to achieve flow if you are doing something you truly dislike. Focus on trying to achieve flow while working on something you love.

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 are also often able to improve their skills in that area. 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.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. Geirland J. Go with the flow. Wired. Published September 1, 1999.

  2. TED. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness. October 24, 2008.

  3. Bonaiuto M, Mao Y, Roberts S, et al. Optimal experience and personal growth: flow and the consolidation of place identityFront Psychol. 2016;7:1654. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01654

  4. Koehn S, Morris T. The relationship between performance and flow state in tennis competition. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2012 Aug;52(4):437-47. PMID: 22828465.

  5. Šimleša M, Guegan J, Blanchard E, Tarpin-Bernard F, Buisine S. The flow engine framework: a cognitive model of optimal human experienceEur J Psychol. 2018;14(1):232-253. doi:10.5964/ejop.v14i1.1370

  6. Katahira K, Yamazaki Y, Yamaoka C, Ozaki H, Nakagawa S, Nagata N. Eeg correlates of the flow state: a combination of increased frontal theta and moderate frontocentral alpha rhythm in the mental arithmetic task. Front Psychol. 2018;9:300. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00300

  7. Gold J, Ciorciari J. A review on the role of the neuroscience of flow states in the modern worldBehav Sci (Basel). 2020;10(9):137. doi:10.3390/bs10090137

  8. Csikszentmihalyi M. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York; 1997.