Although the physical benefits of running and spinning a circle on various parts of my body may seem obvious, it’s the mental state I’m in when I go on a 5-mile run, or do a freestyle hoop-dance to a 10-track playlist that brings me back after a long workday.
The constant to-do list engrained in my brain melts away, and in that moment, I am only thinking of the task at hand.
This mental state, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is called “flow.” In short, flow means being completely engaged in a present moment, enjoying that action and letting all other stressors stay in the back of your mind. This state can be achieved by countless activities: playing chess, writing music, skateboarding, painting, and the list goes on. The main point is that the motivation to do these activities must come from within yourself. But in order to enter this mental state of flow there are several components that must be met:
- The activity must have clear goals and objectives.
- The task must have clear and immediate feedback.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and their perceived skills. A task too difficult may cause frustration.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi credited more satisfactory lives to those who regularly entered the state of flow.
In this digital age of constant distraction, entering a state of flow is becoming ever more difficult. Looking back, I think in my early writing days circa 1996, I would enter a state of flow while writing—in my Lisa Frank journal– what I had for dinner that night. I just loved the act of writing and putting my feelings physically on paper. But, with Facebook now giving noise notifications, writing has become one of my tasks that I flip through while reading email or sending a Tweet. Perhaps I need to go back to the pencil and paper (if I did this blog post may have been half of the length.)
When flow is achieved , productivity, awareness and learning all come more easily. For this reason, Stephen Kotler, Jamie Wheal, and their team have started an initiative called the “Flow Genome Project.” Their project aims to map the genome of flow by the year 2020, and to discover how to reverse-engineer flow states. They credit the Montessori school movement with creating effective learning environments which incorporate elements of flow such by using “a prepared environment, auto-didactic materials, and multi-sensory progressive challenges, according to their website.”
“In training bodies and brains, and verifying our findings objectively, we will end up with a more precise and nuanced understanding of what peak performance looks like and feels like and be able to apply this knowledge directly to our lives and work in the world,” they conclude.
This similar idea is even making its way to local (for me, Florida) flow enthusiasts. Casandra Tannenbaum is launching a project called the Flow Arts Movement, which will bring flow arts such as hula hooping, poi spinning, juggling and the like to teach science lessons in areas such as kinetic energy.
“It is primarily focused on education, and cultivating a model for bringing flow arts into K-12 and afterschool classrooms as arts enrichment, integrated into any of the major curricular areas of formalized education,” Tannenbaum said. “We are also spreading the model of family friendly, publicly accessible flow festivals to cities and communities throughout the states.”
Tannenbaum started hula hooping in 2001, she fell in love with how the activity made her feel, although she didn’t know the scientific term for it and began teaching and spreading the hoop trend throughout Florida, and is the organizer of an annual festival called Florida Flow Fest.
“Flow is winking at God,” Tannenbaum said. “It’s like a full body mind high, earth, the sun and stars, and all the planets aligned to give you exactly what you want, which is nothing more than the most clear and undiluted presence in the moment-to-moment chaotic dance of universal energy and light which is us, exactly, unrestrained and beautifully loving.”
So, a state of flow may be easier to achieve when you’re doing an activity which requires full focus, such as big wave surfing, where distraction could result in a wipeout. The same goes with all extreme sports which all require the athlete to be totally immersed in this state. Hoop dance is also one of these activities, because in order to create a seamless dance while manipulating an object takes complete concentration as well. In short, because of this mental state that I enter while distance running or hula hooping, I use these activities to be a sort of meditation of sorts. These activities pull me away from my normal brain, which sometimes reflects an Internet browser page with too many open tabs.
This mental state can be entered during any activity, given the right conditions.
If an activity (yes, even writing on a deadline) meets these requirements, it is possible to enter this mental state as long as you are only focusing on that one task. (So having Facebook and Twitter open while writing a work report or research paper may inhibit flow). There are several benefits of flow to take into consideration:
Benefits of flow:
- Time passes quickly (Time flies when you’re having fun, or just really concentrated on one thing)
- What you’re doing feels important (mainly because you initiated the act)
- You’re not self-conscious
- Action and awareness comes together
- You feel in control (contrary to feeling stressed and not in control)
- Your mind feels rewarded.
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act, ” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Check out more articles on the psychology of flow!