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Flow is a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
Components of flow
As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, there are components of an experience of flow that can be specifically enumerated; he presents eight:
- Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernable).
- Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
- A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
- Distorted sense of time - our subjective experience of time is altered.
- Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
- Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is not too easy or too difficult).
- A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
Not all of these components are needed for flow to be experienced.
Flow is so named because during Csikszentmihalyi's 1975 interviews several people described their 'flow' experiences using the metaphor of a current carrying them along. The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase "to go with the flow" which means "to conform".
Csikszentmihalyi suggests several ways in which a group could work together so that each individual member could achieve flow. The characteristics of such a group include:
- Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts, however no tables, therefore primarily work in standing and moving.
- Playground design : Charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness (here also craziness has a place), safe place (here all may say what is otherwise only thought), result wall, open topics
- Parallel, organized working
- Target group focus
- Advancement of existing one (prototyping)
- Efficiency increase by visualization
- Difference of the participants is a chance
Related observations and disciplines
Csikszentmihalyi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western Psychology, but as he himself readily acknowledges he was most certainly not the first to notice the psychological phenomenon or to develop techniques based upon it.
For over two and a half millennia, practitioners of Eastern spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Taoism have honed this discipline as a very central part of their spiritual development. Japanese practitioners have practised such Zen Buddhist techniques in order to master their chosen art forms (martial or otherwise), including everything from Kendo to Ikebana.
The much over-used phrase "being at one with things" may also refer to this concept.
In education, there is the concept of overlearning which seems to be an important factor in this technique -- at least when physical skills are being practiced. In addition, many modern sports people commonly experience this phenomenon, referring to it as being in the zone.
It is worth noting that, while the basic idea is the same in the East and West, shared among scientists, spiritual masters, and sportspeople, only Csikszentmihalyi seems to have drawn conclusions from this about improving modern Western cultural elements such as playground design, while others focus on the potential for spiritual development, physical mastery, or other forms of self-improvement. Indeed, Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around the subject, though tested and refined in a way that is different from the systematic rigor and controls that modern scientific psychologists attempt to employ.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0060920432
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0060928204
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books. ISBN 0465024114 (a popular exposition emphasizing technique)
- Langer, Ellen J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley. ISBN 0201523418
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