Flow and Optimal Experience

One of the main concepts in my current work is that of Flow and/or Optimal Experience. Although they are used to define the same kind of subjective experience, the way of studying and operationalizing them has brought the question whether, in fact, they represent the same experience. However, the aim of this particular post is to give an overview of what the flow experience is, and its implications on individual and social growth.

The Flow concept emerged from the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. He wanted to study those experiences when individuals are intrinsically motivated and fully engaged in an activity. The main question was not the why of doing these activities, but what and how their experience is. To study this experience, Csikszentmihalyi started by interviewing artists, rock climbers, among others about their work and leisure experiences. He asked them about the experiences individuals did for their own sake. Although the activities different individuals reported were different, a similar phenomenology emerged: intense concentration, enjoyment, and a sense of merging of action and awareness, and a desire to repeat the experience after one leaves it. In fact, the term “flow” was coined because of the way individuals described this experience as “flowing”.

The Flow experience emerges when one’s motivation, emotions and thoughts are in balance. When out of balance, the individual looses focus and the opportunity to fully engage in the activity. Phenomenologically, the flow experience’s main characteristics are the complete focus and immersion in the activity at hand, the merging of action and awareness, interest and enjoyment, perceiving control over one’s actions and performance, and perceiving a distortion in the way time goes by (who never felt time fly by when you’re so concentrated and involved in one activity?). However, our experiences don’t emerge in a vacuüm. And the Flow model understands that experience exists as the result of the interaction between the individual and the context that surrounds him/her.

Although there are a myriad of activities reported to promote flow experiences, research observed that these activities share some characteristics between them. They present relatively high challenges to the individuals experiencing them (and these challenges are met by perceived high skills), they have clear proximal goals, and offer the individual clear feedback (increasing the perception of control). Some activities are more likely to promote a flow experience; several studies have reported that individuals often find experiences of flow in work/study and active/structured leisure activities. These activities are usually highly structured, presenting the individual with most of the flow promoting characteristics. However, other activities, such as house chores, watching TV or social interactions have also been identified as flow experiences by some individuals. This relates to the subjective characteristics of experience.

Flow is a highly subjective experience. The activity that provides an individual a flow experience at any given time, is not granted to promote it again in the same individual, or in any other individual, because it depends on each individual’s perception of contextual characteristics (eg., challenges from the activity), and perception of internal characteristics (eg., own skills). However, it is this subjective characteristic of the flow experience that makes it so important in the promotion of the individual, and ultimately, of a good life. The flow experience has not only been associated with high involvement, concentration, intrinsic motivation and enjoyment, but its aftermath has also been linked to increases in positive affect, self-esteem, or feeling strong, and the desire to repeat that experience. The dynamic nature of flow involves the continual promotion of one’s skills and development of mental and internal structures, as individuals hope to re-experience flow. The need to search for higher challenges emerges, as the individual extends his/her own skills and structures in each challenging activity he/she overcomes. Hence, the subjective perception of what is a challenge, or not, changes through time, as well as the perception of what’s needed to engage and feel in flow. In time, repeating this experience promotes individual development and growth.

Finally, the implications of the flow model and of promoting the flow experience extend to the diverse contexts of life. Whether in school, work, leisure, or menial chores, promoting flow provides the individual meaning and enjoyment in the activity. These have particular implications in the way individuals engage in work/study activities that, although not always chosen voluntarily, might be enjoyed if the individual perceives meaning in them, and understands their importance for future goals. Moreover, in more boring tasks, the individual might be encouraged to look creatively to the task and create challenges adequate to his own skills.

Bibliography

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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow: The Psychology of  Happiness: The classic work on how to achieve happiness.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow in everyday life. NY: Basic Books

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1988) Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) Beyond boredom and anxiety: experiencing flow in work and play.

Snyder, C.R., Lopez, S.H. (2009) Handbook of Positive Psychology.

Carr, A. (2003) Positive Psychology: the science of happiness and human strengths.

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