Psychology: Flow State of Mind

What is a Flow State of Mind?

The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” in 1975, but the concept has existed for thousands of years under different names. It’s what Aristotle called eudaimonia, the Taoists call Wu Wei, and the Buddhists call zen.

Flow is the mental state of deep immersion and presence in an activity. In his 2004 TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi spoke about the seven conditions that are at play when someone is in a flow state of mind:

  • Intense focus, The person is deeply involved in whatever they’re doing.
  • An alternative reality, They feel as if they’re outside of the everyday, dull routine of daily reality.
  • Inner clarity, They know what needs to be done in order to progress and achieve their goal.
  • Skill/Challenge ratio, They know that they’re just skilled enough to complete the challenge.
  • A sense of serenity, They are not thinking about their everyday problems and fears.
  • Timelessness, They are less aware of time. Hours can pass by in what seems like minutes.
  • Intrinsic motivation, The activity feels rewarding in itself. There’s no external motivator they are thinking about.

Those who have mastered a particular skill will be familiar with the feeling described above. Flow is everywhere: figure skaters, poets, composers, writers, athletes, and programmers are all capable of experiencing flow.

Why Does Flow Feel So Good?

Flow is a highly rewarding experience because your brain produces these chemicals when in flow: norepinephrine, anandamide, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. All of these are performance-enhancing chemicals that make you feel good.

There’s also the rewarding feeling of being productive and working on something that you’re just skilled enough for to complete properly. Psychologists Antonella Delle Fave and Fausto Massimini illustrated this skill/challenge ratio in what they called the Experience Fluctuation Model:

While the model is not without its problems — people don’t always feel apathetic in low-challenge/low-skill situations — it neatly illustrates the fact that flow happens in challenging situations where you’re also highly skilled (the top right corner).

How Does Flow Relate to Happiness?

Happiness is a byproduct of doing highly rewarding activities, i.e. activities that induce flow. Scientists consider flow “autotelic”, which means that it’s rewarding in itself.

When you don’t rely on external motivators like money and material resources to determine your happiness, you’ll be more resistant to shocks that would otherwise have impacted your happiness.

Additionally, a flow state of mind means that you’re fully present in the moment. In that sense, flow is a close cousin to mindfulness, which reduces stress and improves how peaceful and calm you feel. In fact, if you cannot get into the flow, it’s a good idea to take a page from the book of mindfulness and consciously focus on the task at hand.

Don’t chase happiness. It ebbs and flows (no pun intended) and will always do so. Instead, focus on getting extremely good at a particular skill and set up your environment so you fall into the highly rewarding feeling of flow whenever you look at the code you’re writing.

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