It is not particularly shocking that there are differences between what a Grammy-winning singer, a brain surgeon and a senior in high school on the JV fencing team do. Of far more interest is the striking similarity in the descriptions that each one gives of their experience when they are “in the zone” – regardless of what (and where) their zone is. We have a number of expressions to describe the desirable “head in the game” state, but psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi formally named the experience “flow.” After years of research on flow, Csíkszentmihályi and other psychologists give us insight into what it flow is, why it’s worth striving for, and how we can create it for ourselves.
Flow is the experience of being completely engaged in an activity and at peak mental performance. When you experience flow, you are able to achieve total focus through optimal psychological and physiological conditions. Neurologically, when you are in flow you expend less brain energy while getting the most (neural) bang for your buck. This happens because the parts of the brain most relevant for the task at hand are most active and irrelevant areas are generally quiet. In contrast, when you are anxious or confused, this distinction in brain region activity is non-existent. Psychologists believe that flow enhances happiness – but perhaps more importantly, it makes work feel less like work, changes your perceptions of time, and optimizes performance. Simply put, you are doing your GPA and your mental state a huge favor if you can figure out how to “flow” right through your prelims and research papers. The experience of flow sparked Csíkszentmihályi’s interest when he was studying artists while they were painting. He was struck by “how deeply they were involved in their work, forgetting everything else” and wondered if this experience was confined to Picasso-types. As he began looking at rock climbers, chess players, and musicians, Csíkszentmihályi expected to find substantial differences in their experiences, but actually found that people experiencing flow in myriad contexts reported the same type of experience, focus and satisfaction. Athletes, chefs, and video game addicts can all achieve the same flow experience; the trick is the optimization of three conditions.
The most critical circumstance that leads to flow is a balance between the challenge level and perceived skills. If you want to reach flow, you need to be engaged by the challenge level, but also believe that you have the skills to effectively tackle the challenge. As corny as it sounds, you really have to believe that you can do it. No surprise, Csíkszentmihályi explained this best: “It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have.” In addition to appropriate challenge level and perceived skill set, having a goal that adds both structure and direction is important because it helps orient your energy and focus. Other factors that enhance the likelihood of achieving flow include clear and immediate feedback, a lack of self-consciousness, and a sense of personal control.
While anyone can achieve flow, certain personality traits enhance the ability to get there: curiosity, persistency, low self-centeredness, and high rates of performing activities for intrinsic reasons. Certain activities are also less likely to help you get to the ‘flow’ Csíkszentmihályi describes; it is very rare to experience flow during passive activities like watching TV or just relaxing. However, you can actually achieve flow by doing your schoolwork and the experience maximizes your performance and productivity. Using the Csíkszentmihályi’s research, you can enhance your ability to have flow experiences in your college life. Picking classes, extra-curricular undertakings and even paper topics that provide legitimate, achievable challenges creates the foundation for flow experiences. But just because it’s October and past the “add” deadline doesn’t mean that flow is out of your reach this semester. You can take a few very concrete steps to maximize the likelihood of reaching flow – even if it’s on a Thursday night and you’re sitting in the library. Pressure to stay engaged is important, but the pressure should not be so intense that it harms performance. This translates to creating work situations for yourself that do not put you under unmanageable time constraints. You can also enhance your ability to reach flow by minimizing distracters: turn off your phone, and don’t sit on the third floor of Mann with everyone who you know at Cornell. Wasting time analyzing and critiquing how you’re doing is not only a waste of time, but actually disrupts the neural process that helps you move along most productively. At a TED talk a few years ago, Csíkszentmihályi tackled the question, “What makes life worth living?” and addressed the more specific issue of what happiness is really about. He suggested that people who are the happiest and most satisfied in their lives are successful at achieving – and maintaining – these flow experiences in their activities. This doesn’t seem like rocket science, but it is brain science: research gives more than just intuitive reasons not to let yourself get overwhelmed and stressed out. Put yourself in places and situations that encourage you to ‘get into it’, don’t criticize your performance, and find satisfaction in what you can accomplish. Psychology gives yet another reason why you should relax — and go with the flow.
Original Author: Emily Weinstein