Engagement refers to flow or optimal experience, where we are fully immersed in what we’re doing. We might find flow in reading, socializing with other people, or playing sports. “Micro flow” activities are even shorter instances of flow, like little distractions or games we play with ourselves to make life less boring.
Conditions. To achieve a state of flow, the challenge in front of us has to be equal to our skills. In other words, we have a chance of completing the task and feel in control. Clear goals and immediate feedback give us the sense that we are progressing toward success. Flow requires a separate space where we can concentrate, removed from the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
Flow will be hard to achieve if there is a lack of rules or norms, which makes it hard to decide which goals to pursue. It’s also hard to achieve flow if you’re forced to do a certain activity, because you don’t feel in control or invested in the goals. Flow requires our attention to be focused externally on the task, so self-consciousness or self-centeredness tend to inhibit flow because there’s too much focus on the self.
The flow state. Tasks that produce flow also require a lot of effort, and they don’t always feel “good” at the time. In fact, they may not feel like much of anything because our sense of self often disappears. In this state of unselfconsciousness, we may lose track of time and feel like we’re acting automatically. We may sometimes achieve a feeling of self-transcendence, where the boundaries of existence are expanded.
While flow gives us a feeling of control, it actually involves the lack of fear of losing control. It’s a loose and flowing state, rather than tense and rigid. Time usually speeds up, but it can sometimes slow down, too.
Examples. We can achieve flow with our bodies, using the five senses and doing physical activity. We might find flow while walking, dancing, having sex, or doing yoga or martial arts. We can find flow by seeing art, hearing music, or tasting food. To turn a physical act into flow, we should set a goal and subgoals, measure our progress, concentrate, develop our skills, and keep increasing the challenge.
We can also achieve flow in thought, while reading, daydreaming, remembering, or thinking about science, history, or philosophy. We achieve flow four times as often at work as watching TV. To achieve flow of thought, we have to find what we’re truly interested in and pursue it for its own sake, not for external reasons.
Flow of thought is one of the ways we can learn to enjoy solitude, but flow is also available in social situations. Flow is particularly strong in early parts of a romantic relationships, when we’re constantly learning and being challenged. We can also find flow in conversations.
The benefits of flow are primarily around our self-conception and efficacy. Flow creates a sense of mastery and strengthens the self. We become not only more complex – more different from other people – but also more integrated – more united with others.
Flow creates a sense of discovery and challenges us to constantly do better, because we will become bored if we don’t.
Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Who studies it
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ken Sheldon
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (2004)