The flow state – You begin writing something and the words start flowing rapidly, filling page after page, until you realize you have been bent over your notebook for hours. You have fun working on a project and it suddenly hits you that you have had nothing to eat all day. You start watching your favorite TV series or reading your favorite book before going to bed and you are struck by glimpsing the first sunrays through the window. You can say you have been “in the zone”, or that you have reached your flow state.
What is the flow state?
A flow state is a mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity, being completely focused and concentrated, while also experiencing enjoyment and a sense of control, leading to managing to have a better performance than usual. At this point any kind of distraction is muted as the person is fully absorbed by the activity and the sense of time is lost. The intensity of the focus leads to a feeling of ecstasy which is produced by the theta waves (slow waves of neural activity in the brain), neurotransmitters and hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine. The addictiveness of these hormones is an explanation for the fading away of the need for sleep and food, along with the fact that being completely engaged in a process consumes all the attention which could have been directed towards how the body feels or to other external problems. The inhibitions are also diminished and the task becomes automatic, as long as one has mastered a well-developed technique.
This state can be reached when we receive instant and continuous gratification while performing a challenging task that is enjoyable and for which we have the required skills. We are pushed to stretch our limits and because the efforts are voluntary, we remain motivated and feel fulfilled during the process of completing the task. This state is most frequently and easily reached by artists, athletes, musicians or writers, as the activities performed by these provide an ongoing feedback.
How can you enter the flow state?
The benefits of the flow state are multiple. Because reaching the flow state presumes a high level of concentration and a complete neglection of external factors, the quality of the work can be improved and the tasks can be completed more efficiently. Moreover, the happiness produced during the process of completing the tasks increases and the individuals are more fulfilled with their work, as they stop experiencing it as a regular everyday routine.
Positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the one who popularized the flow state, came with the notion of the “autotelic person”, which is used when referring to the individuals who are more capable of experiencing flow. They are characterized by a high capacity of concentration, a high level of self-esteem and intrinsic motivation. Nevertheless, there are methods through which one can try to increase the frequency of reaching the flow state.
As stated before, the type of activity and the qualifications of those who practice it are of utmost importance. People who are highly trained in a domain but receive easy tasks will be confronted with boredom, being unable to reject distractions and maintain an active interest in their work. One of the positive aspects of entering the flow state is a subjective well-being resulted from the feeling of being capable of accomplishing something difficult; thus said, engaging into an activity which is not difficult enough will not lead to the desired results. On the other hand, those who have to deal with challenging tasks but who are less skillful will become anxious and will not have a good performance. A study conducted on 84 students of the Academy of Music which analyzed the relation between experiencing flow and the subjective well-being of students reported that students who felt less competent did not reported as many flow experiences as the others, although they were performing the same type of activity for which they shared the same level of interest. Moreover, without the required qualification one cannot implicitly perform the task and experience that “out of this world” sensation, which is characteristic for the flow.
Another important aspect which should not be neglected in order to be able to enter the flow state is the clarity of the goal. Knowing the objectives and understanding the course of action which is required in order to have a successful outcome is extremely important – the purpose must remain clear throughout the whole process in order to maintain the individuals fully engaged to the task.
After you manage to find an activity of great interest, which provides constant feedback, has a clear goal and is proportional to your skills and qualifications, one useful tool in order to reach the flow state is practicing mindfulness, which will help you focus on the task, ignore any outside distractions and free yourself from your critic “inner voice”.
If you want to find more about other methods which will contribute to your well-being, try reading about the 5 Natural Ways to Increase the Serotonin Level and Ensure Happiness.