Understanding Flow in Positive Psychology

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Understanding Flow in Positive Psychology

Written by

Understanding Flow in Positive Psychology

Written by

Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best. 

To know if you’ve ever experienced flow, ask yourself: have you ever experienced a combination of these traits? 

  1. Rapt attention and total absorption
  2. Being so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. 
  3. Action and awareness merging. 
  4. Your sense of self vanishing. 
  5. Your sense of time distorting (either, typically, speeding up; or, occasionally, slowing down).
  6. All aspects of your performance, both mental and physical, going through the roof.

If you’ve ever felt that happen to you when skiing down a mountain, coding a website, writing a novel or doing anything else you’re passionate about—you’ve been in flow. And it feels so good, it’s practically the most addictive drug on the planet. Helping you achieve more flow in your life is what we do. 

The science of flow goes back hundreds of years—before it had a single name. But when did flow become part of positive psychology? That giant leap forward happened in the 1970s and 80s when the chairman of the University of Chicago Psychology Department named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me high, Chick sent me high) conducted the research that would make him “the godfather of flow.” 

Csikszentmihalyi completed a global survey of people, asking them to describe the moments when they felt their best and performed their best. After that study, he identified four fundamental things about flow:

  1. Flow has definable characteristics (the ones listed at the top of this article).  
  2. Flow is measurable. We have really well-developed psychometric instruments for measuring flow. 
  3. Flow is universal. Humans are biologically hardwired for flow. The state shows up in anyone—if the right conditions are met.  
  4. Flow is called flow for a very specific reason: almost every high performer Csikszentmihalyi interviewed described their state as “every action and decision flowing seamlessly and perfectly from the first to the last.” This makes flow a phenomenological description—it describes how a state makes you feel. 

What makes flow feel flowy is the experience of high-speed, near-perfect decision making. We clarify “near-perfect” because any extreme athlete will tell you that flow will make you feel like superman—until you realize you’re not. 

Flow psychology is fundamental to improving your sense of well-being and self-satisfaction. It’s a critical component of positive psychology. 

Here are some excellent books on the psychology of flow:

- Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

- Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

- The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler. 

Also, Steven Kotler just completed a new book on the psychology of flow and peak performance called, The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. It combines 30 years of studying those moments in time when the impossible became possible. You can learn more about the book and how to pre-order it in a blog post written by Steven called “Stalking the Impossible.”

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