Imagine the moment before running a race. Deep breaths behind the starting line keep your pounding heart at bay, and every second seems to be an eternity; yet, as soon as the starting gun sounds and your feet hit the track, every thought slides from your mind. You are focused and sure, challenging yourself to achieve something you know is right within your reach. Before you know it, time has flown past, the race is over, and though your chest is heaving, you barely notice that you are tired.
According to positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, what you experience in that moment is known as flow state, defined as an "optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best." Csíkszentmihályi, who popularized the term in his 1990 book, the mental state of flow involves "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." The ten factors that can accompany this state of flow are:
1. Having clear goals about what you want to achieve
2. Concentration and focus
3. Participating in an intrinsically rewarding activity
4. Losing feelings of self-consciousness
5. Timelessness; losing track of time passing
6. Being able to immediately judge your own progress; instant feedback on your performance
7. Knowing that your skills align with the goals of the task
8. Feeling control over the situation and the outcome
9. Lack of awareness of physical needs
10. Complete focus on the activity itself
Now, not all of these factors need to be present in order to achieve flow state, but they are the emotions and responses most often associated with this mental state.
So what can you do to increase your chances of achieving flow? In his book Finding Flow, Csíkszentmihályi explains that individuals can seek out activities that meet some of the factors of flow, like playing chess, playing a logic game or puzzle like Sudoku, participating in sports, engaging in a meaningful project at work or at school, drawing, or writing.
"Flow also happens when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges," Csíkszentmihályi explains. "If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills."
The importance of actively seeking out the flow state cannot be overstated. Research done by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile shows that people who have experienced this state of mind report higher levels of productivity, creativity, and happiness for up to three days after experiencing flow state. Pushing ourselves just outside our comfort zone, stretching to accomplish a set goal and working toward that goal with focus, determination, and little distraction expands our minds and teaches us to be creative and innovative-skills that increase the quality of both the work you do and the life you live.
For thousands of years mankind has looked up to the stars and formed intricate patterns, figures of hunters and heroes, out of the meaningless scatter of starshine; for we humans seek meaning wherever we can find it. Living a life of meaning and of depth requires us to step outside of our comfort zones, to challenge our own ideas and create innovative ways to optimize our time on this earth. The mental state of flow catapults our minds out of the mindless humdrum of everyday life and closer to a meaningful existence.