We’ve all had moments when we felt like we were in the zone—in which we are fully, blissfully engaged in what we’re doing and lose track of time. The Hungarian psychologist who coined the term ‘flow’, Mihaely Csikszentmihalyi, believes it to be the holy grail of happiness: while we can enjoy passive pleasures, we are really in the driver’s seat for flow.
As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (no relation) points out, in the flow state two key regions of the brain deactivate: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, leaving us feeling brave.
As Steven Kotler describes the state of flow in his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance:
We are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.
Sounds great. Where can we get some?
Despite intensive study, particularly in the world of professional athletes, who rely on being in the zone to perform, nobody quite has the answer of how to manufacture flow. But Csikszentmihalyi has identified certain elements that contribute to its coming about:
- Flow happens more frequently while engaged in a state of activity than while doing something passive like watching television or hanging out. Interestingly, while people believe themselves to be happier at leisure, studies have found that individuals actually experience flow more often at work. It may also be worth pursuing more active hobbies.
- Flow tends to occur in situations with a clear set of goals and rules—in games such as chess, tennis, or poker, for example—and which provide immediate feedback on performance. The same clarity and feedback loop are present when playing a piece of music, writing a computer program, performing surgery, or climbing a mountain.
- There is a balance between skill and challenge—the task is not so easy that you get bored, but it’s difficult enough that you’re absorbed by it. As such, we should not shy away from tackling new skills, both professionally and personally.
- Flow states can be found in interactions with other people if they provide a certain mental challenge. “A good conversation is like a jam session in jazz,” writes Csikszentmihalyi, “where one starts with conventional elements and then introduces spontaneous variations that create an exciting new composition.”
Almost any activity can produce flow, provided the relevant elements are present. Csikszentmihalyi’s research has found people experiencing flow during activities as diverse as gardening, listening to music, bowling, cooking, driving, and talking to friends.
To improve flow at work, Csikszentmihalyi recommends increasing mindfulness. “Turning a dull job into one that satisfies our need for novelty and achievement involves paying close attention to each step involved,” he writes. Ask yourself how something can be done better or more efficiently. “When approached…with a determination to make it personally meaningful, even the most mundane job can produce flow,” he concludes.
The conclusion again then, is that to live a happier life requires a mastery of our attention. “How much stress we experience depends more on how well we control attention than on what happens to us,” writes Csikszentmihalyi. In addition to attention-focusing activities like meditation, martial arts and exercise, we can develop the habit of applying concentrated attention to even the most mundane of our daily tasks. Csikszentmihalyi also gives the pragmatic advice of keeping track of activities and noting which ones give us pleasure, as many of us aren’t aware of which components of their lives we actually enjoy. Lastly, he suggests a experimenting with the surroundings and circadian rhythms to optimize the ordering of one’s life:
One must learn to husband time carefully in order to enjoy life in the here and now.
Kotler shares several conditions for encouraging flow, all of which enhance present moment awareness:
- Intensely focused attention
- Clear goals – frees the mind from figuring out what to do next, keeping us in the present
- Immediate feedback loop
- Challenge/skills ratio
- High consequences (lot of risk in environment) — action & adventure sports; can replace physical risk with creative risk, social risk (brain can’t tell the difference between social fear and physical fear)
- Environment rich in novelty, unpredictability and complexity
- Deep embodiment – five senses + 50% of nerve-endings in hands & feet & face –> drives attention into the now
- Serious concentration
As Kotler concludes:
Flow follows focus. It is a state that can only show up in the now, in the present tense. So what all these triggers are are ways of driving our attention into the now…they’re the ways that evolution shaped our brain to pay attention to the moment.