What is flow?

Flow refers to a state of becoming completely absorbed in an activity, psychologists say. It is common among artists, athletes and religious devotees. These states feel rewarding because they provide a balance of ease and challenge. That's why you can get lost in a project you enjoy.

Ronald Siegel
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., calls the state of intense absorption "flow"—the experience of being fully involved in an activity, marked by a sense of concentration and control and a lack of self-consciousness or awareness of time or discomfort.

For decades, he explored people's satisfaction in their everyday activities, finding that people report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing. In studies by Csikszentmihalyi and others, flow experiences led to positive emotions in the short term, and over the long term, people who more frequently experienced flow were generally happier. Researchers have also found that people vary in how much they value having flow experiences, and in how easy they find it to enter flow. No matter what your natural tendency, recognizing how flow occurs (or doesn't) in your life and creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness.
Edward Phillips
Physical Therapy
Ever been so immersed in what you were doing that distractions and background chatter just fell away? Nothing existed except the shush of your skis on the snow, the sensation of your car sweeping around bends in the road, the images cast by the book you had your nose in, or the satisfying sense of pieces clicking into place as you worked through a challenging task. Dubbed "flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, this state of being feels effortless, yet active. You lose awareness of time, you cease to think about yourself or feel distracted by extraneous thoughts. You may be working toward a goal—earning a graduate degree or winning a chess tournament—yet that isn't your primary motivation. Rather, you find the activity itself rewarding. Researchers have found flow hinges on a balance between the size of a challenge and the level of your skill. Watching TV, for example, isn't likely to spark a sense of flow even though you may find it relaxing.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.