Think back to the last meal that you made for yourself. You probably would have started off by
setting a goal for yourself as to what you’re going to make. You’re at ease because you know
you’ve done this before. For those of you bent on trying something that you’ve only seen being
made on television, you may have been a little anxious. Then, you proceed to choose your set of
ingredients. As you progress one baby-step a time, that may have involved the chopping of
vegetables or making that extra special sauce using Grandma’s secret recipe, things start falling into
place as you see your dish unfold and become (or resemble, for those of us like me who are not very skilled at cooking)
what it was intended to be. The kitchen smells delicious and before you even know it, your meal is ready.
While cooking, sometimes we get so involved in this process that once the meal is ready, and we
take a moment to check in with ourselves, we realize that time passed by really quickly. “But wait,
“But wait, wasn’t it just 4:00? Why is it almost 5:00 when that was literally just 5 minutes?!”.
Now imagine a situation where, while making a meal we get so involved in the act of cooking that we lose our
sense of self, we forget to check the time, and the chopping of tomatoes seems effortless as whole
tomatoes slowly turn into finely chopped bits. Even before we know it, we feel ourselves becoming
one with our meal, with the dish obtained serving more or less as an excuse to engage in cooking.
Such an experience, is what we would call a Flow experience.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont
Graduate University, is the architect of the phenomenology of Flow. The operational definition of
Flow describes it as a state where our experience unfolds from one moment to the next. A flow
state is characterized by intense and focused concentration on the present moment, the merging of
one’s actions and awareness, the loss of awareness of oneself as a social animal, a distortion in
one’s sense of time, a sense that one can control one’s actions and knows how to deal with the
situation, and that the end goal of the activity is almost an excuse to be involved in the activity
(Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2009).
While conducting research on creativity at the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi observed
that while a painting was in the process of being made, the artist tended to ignore hunger and
fatigue and was more or less completely immersed in the process, but lost interest in the piece once
it was completed. It was almost like the end goal did not matter to the artist, and the artist involved
themselves in the activity for the sake of the activity itself, consequentially moving on to the next
piece of art.
As the end goal just becomes an excuse for the process, it can be said that the quality of life depends
not as much on what game we play, but rather, much more on how we play it. The opportunities
for action and the types of experiences vary from one geographic region to another. The structures
that shape the content of everyday experience, such as the social and cultural influences, differ
significantly in Los Angeles than those in New Delhi. However, the same joy of living can be
found in both places, depending on whether we are able to order our experience in a way that
makes it possible for us to Flow.
There are two conditions that are fundamental to enter a flow state. The first condition is a balance
between one’s level of challenge at hand, as perceived by the individual and one’s perceived level
of skill. The 2nd condition is that the activity presents clear emergent goals and also provides
immediate feedback about the progress being made (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2009). When
one’s perceived level of skill is significantly greater than the challenge at hand, one tends to be
bored. On the other hand, when one’s perceived level of skill is way lower than the challenge, as
perceived by the individual, one feels anxious. That sweet spot that lies in the balance between the
two is one of the crucial conditions to be fulfilled in order to enter a flow state. Thus, the secret to
a joyful life, a life that is full of activities and interactions that actually contribute to our happiness
and well-being, lies within our ability to control how we experience reality, and consequentially
our ability to shape the quality of our lives. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s words,
“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe”
Flow activities are known to encourage a person to return to the same activity due to the
experiential rewards it offers to the individual (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2009). As one gets
better at a particular task or activity, one’s perceived level of skill germane to the task increases.
To enter a flow state over and over again in context of the same activity, one will will need to
balance out the ratio between perceived level of challenge and the person’s perceived level of skill.
Thus, in such a case, the challenge will have to be increased. As this forms a self-perpetuating
cycle with the person wanting to return to the activity in order to experience Flow, individual
growth is continuously fostered by the interaction between the person and the environment.
Several studies have found Flow to be related to commitment, as well as achievement during high
school years (Carli, Delle Fave, & Massimini, 1988; Mayers, 1978; Nakamura, 1988).
Correlational data from studies also suggest that there is a link between time spent in Flow and
one’s self-esteem (Adlai-Gail, 1994; Wells, 1988). Furthermore, the universality of Flow is visible
if one considers the areas in which studies on Flow have been conducted. These include, but are
not limited to sports (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Kimiecik & Harris, 1996), literary
writing (Perry, 1999), artistic and scientific creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996), social activism
(Colby & Damon, 1992), as well as aesthetic experience (Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990).
Thus, Finding Flow may be a lot like Finding Waldo, invisible to the wavering eye, but much
easier to find if we are mindful of our experience.
But where exactly does Mindfulness come in? Let us say that you are running a half marathon, a
21K. During the first few kilometers, as your body starts to adapt to the conditions at hand, the
mind tends to be turbulent. It is brought to our attention that our muscles are experiencing fatigue
and pain. It is in this phase that mindfulness would play a significant role in accepting the physical
exertion that the body is experiencing, and to sustain one’s attention at the goal at hand, i.e.
crossing the finish line. Further, once you enter a flow state in this scenario, the most concrete
feedback would be the landmarks that you cross, the turns that you take, and so on. However, to
help sustain attention even longer leaving no room for the mind to be in a state of entropy, being
mindful will significantly aid our experience in unfolding moment-by-moment, and the
progressive feedback can be perceived as this very unfolding, of each and every tree that you cross
by, each and every spectator that you pass, and each and every step that you take that takes you
closer to the finish line.
Moreover, as turning any activity into a Flow activity also heavily depends upon the challenges at
hand, being mindful can allow you to perceive challenges in the present situation that you may not
have been able to, were your mind to be wandering away from the present moment. Hence,
mindfulness can be pictured as the training wheels that can propel our individual progress towards
acquiring the ability to enter a flow state by leaps and bounds.
Finding Flow is a 9-week challenge course in co-laboration with The Mindfulness App that will cover everything
that you need to know about how to enter a flow state at will, in any context that you may choose
to do so. The challenge course will consist of weekly posts, allowing a window of 7 days to fully
dissect and investigate the information that you acquire, tailoring it to your own needs and in turn,
becoming an increasingly complex human being with each passing moment. By the end of Finding
Flow, we believe that you will be on top of your Flow game, flowing effortlessly and gracefully in
whatever activity you are involved in. As we begin this journey together, we humbly request you
to spread the word about Finding Flow, and share this challenge course with your loved ones and
further, as we all learn how to create the life that we’ve long wished for, together. In these growing
times of intolerance, racism, and discrimination, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s words ring louder,
and truer than ever,
“The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other
people’s chances to enjoy theirs”
As we meet again next week, here is a fun game by Brian Tom O’Connor (2016) that you can play
with your awareness in the meanwhile. This exercise will definitely warm you up for next week’s
challenge. And yes, it’s true, all you need to play this game is your awareness!
• Imagine that your parents have not given you a name yet. Now ask yourself,
Who am I?
• Now, imagine that they have given you a name but they have not yet told you what it is.
Now ask yourself,
What does this have to do with me?
Am I the same with, or without the name?
• Now, ask yourself,
What would it feel like if you didn’t even
have a name?
Stay tuned for more updates!
Adlai-Gail, W. (1994). Exploring the autotelic personality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation,
University of Chicago.
Carli, M., Fave, A. D., & Massimini, F. (1988). The quality of experience in the flow channels:
Comparison of Italian and US students. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi
(Eds.), Optimal experience (pp. 288-306). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Colby, A., & Damon, W. (1992). Some do care. New York: Free Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York: HarperCollins.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Robinson, R. (1990). The art of seeing. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty
Museum and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts.
Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Kimiecik, J. C., & Harris, A. T. (1996). What is enjoyment? A conceptual/definitional analysis
with implications for sport and exercise psychology. Journal of Sport and Exercise
Psychology, 18, 247-263.
Mayers, P. (1978). Flow in adolescence and its relation to school experience. Unpublished doctoral
dissertation, University of Chicago.
Nakamura, J. (1988). Optimal experience and the uses of talent. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I.
Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience (pp. 319-326). Cambridge: Cambridge
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In S.J. Lopez & C.R.
Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 195-206). New York:
Oxford University Press.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.
Perry, S. K. (1999). Writing in flow. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.
Wells, A. (1988). Self-Esteem and Optimal Experience. In. M. Csikszentmihalyi & I.
Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in
Consciousness (pp 319-326), New York: Cambridge University Press.