This past summer I decided to learn Latin. On the advice of a linguistically gifted friend, I bought an entry-level textbook and workbook. I was surprised and pleased to discover that, almost as soon as I opened my books, I got lost in what I was doing. Translating sentences from Latin to English felt like solving a series of puzzles. Because so many English, French, and Spanish words derive from Latin, learning the language soon included an etymological treasure hunt as well.
That feeling of being totally absorbed in what I was doing, and of losing track of my surroundings and of time, is called ‘flow.’ The concept of flow was popularised by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which he summarised decades of research about “the positive aspects of human experience—joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life.”1 He called the experience flow because people often used that term to describe what it felt like (e.g. “‘It was like floating’; ‘I was carried on by the flow.’”2) In my experience, flow happens when I am able to give wholehearted, focused attention to an activity. Though unaware that I am experiencing flow while in that state, when I emerge from it I feel as though I have been given a gift.
“In my experience, flow happens when I am able to give wholehearted, focused attention to an activity.”
Csikszentmihalyi3 described several characteristics of a flow experience. Flow often happens when a person is doing a task with clear goals, receives immediate feedback, has a good chance of completing the task, is able to concentrate on the task at hand, is acting with “deep but effortless involvement,”4 has a sense of control over his or her actions, forgets about him/herself, and loses track of time. A person does not need to experience all of these at once in order to be in flow.
Flow happens when a person’s skill level is equal to or just below the level of challenge posed by an activity. By contrast, when the challenge level is much higher than the person’s skill level, he or she is likely to experience frustration. When the challenge level is low and skill level is high, boredom can result.
People experience flow during a wide range of activities: participating in sports, listening to or making music, reading, playing games, and more. I have most often experienced flow while writing, editing, teaching, and (as aforementioned) studying Latin. My children have experienced it while doing a variety of preferred activities, including drawing and painting; knitting and crocheting; working with electronics; coding on the computer; and playing the piano. Worship can also be a flow experience.
“What we pay attention to matters.”
What we pay attention to matters. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is largely about gaining control over one’s attention. He states, “Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”5 I disagree with Csikszentmihalyi’s comment that ‘we create ourselves,’ and I do not think that attention is ours for us ‘to do with as we please.’ But I do agree about the importance of managing our attention. As Christians, we have a responsibility to steward our attention and to use it in ways that are God-honoring.
Some people seem to find it easier than others to experience flow. It will be very difficult to enter flow if you lack control over your attention, with random thoughts constantly jumping in and out of your mind. It will also be difficult if your attention is held too tightly, either from being overly self-conscious (so that you worry excessively about what others think of you) or too self-centered (so that your attention is stuck on yourself).
Until recently, I viewed flow as a basically positive state. I enjoy the experience of being in flow. However, as I read about flow and discussed the concept with friends, I realised that—as with all things in this beautiful but broken world—we need to be careful how we direct the gift of being in a flow state. What you focus on while in flow matters. People have experienced (misdirected) flow while committing crimes, for example. Csikszentmihalyi acknowledged this danger. He wrote that we must “…(learn) to distinguish the useful and the harmful forms of flow, and then (make) the most of the former while placing limits on the latter.”6
“I realised that–as with all things in this beautiful but broken world– we need to be careful how we direct the gift of being in a flow state.”
Also, the flow state is most rewarding when the activity has a purpose. It depends on continuous feedback. But sometimes we enter a state where we lose track of time without having a clear goal or focus. This can end up as wasted time, such as when we scroll mindlessly on social media or follow random internet trails only to find out that hours have passed. Dr. Kevin Majeres, a psychologist at Harvard University, calls this unfocused but absorbed state ‘hyperfocus’ rather than flow. He refers to hyperfocus as ‘unbalanced intensity,’ and says that over time, being in hyperfocus can actually impede a person’s ability to concentrate and to enter the flow state.7
As a final warning, flow experiences can become addictive. When a person is in flow, he or she will forget about problems or worries for that stretch of time, because all their attention is focused on the activity. “…(E)njoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order,8 and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.”9
Flow is a unique and sometimes elusive experience. Despite the cautions above, I think flow is worth pursuing, if properly directed. It is one way to exercise God-given abilities in a way that can be deeply enjoyable. During flow, our efforts are unusually fruitful. We end up feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. Being in flow is a fulfilling experience and brings elements of depth and joy to life. In her book All Joy and No Fun, author Jennifer Senior writes, “The paradoxical thing about flow is that it is often marked by an absence of feeling, experienced nonetheless as a form of undiluted bliss. That’s what makes flow one of the most beguiling and equal-opportunity parts of our emotional lives: no matter what kind of temperament we’ve been handed, even if it’s melancholic, almost all of us have the ability to lose ourselves in something we love and do well.”10
Understanding flow and learning to recognize it are helpful because they can improve our likelihood of entering flow in the future. We cannot make ourselves enter flow; what we can do is cultivate a favorable environment for it. As an analogy, I think about sleep. It, too, is a state we cannot force ourselves to enter. However, we can practice good sleep hygiene to make falling and staying asleep more likely. This is also true for flow. To start with, we can practise controlling attention (a key skill when it comes to flow), for example by setting boundaries around phones and devices that are designed to distract.
This essay is part one of two; in the next, I will share about several situations in which the concept of flow is particularly relevant. In the meantime, I wonder: Have you experienced the flow state? Under what circumstances?
Flow, p. xi ↩
Flow, p. 40 ↩
pronounced ‘chick-SENT-me-high’ ↩
Flow, p. 49 ↩
Flow, p. 32, 33 ↩
Flow, p. 70 ↩
Kevin Majeres, episode “Choose Flow, Not Hyperfocus,” The Golden Hour podcast, May 16, 2022. ↩
Csikszentmihalyi defined an ordered consciousness as one in which the person is “in control of feelings and thoughts.” (p. 24) He wrote that flow created an ordered consciousness because, in that state, “Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal.” (p. 41). The opposite of an ordered consciousness happens when we experience “information that conflicts with existing intentions, or distracts us from carrying them out.” (p. 36) It is the feeling of focused control, and the ordered mind that accompanies it, that can become addictive ↩
Flow, p. 62 ↩
All Joy and No Fun, p. 30 ↩