Embedded within and critical to the burgeoning field of positive psychology, the concept of flow represents an optimal state of consciousness, a positive psychological state. The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), who devised the concept of flow, describes how this experience helps promote creativity and psychosocial complexity. The study of flow began following interviews Csikszentmihalyi (1975) conducted with artists, mountain climbers, athletes, chess players, and surgeons, where a high level of consistency was found in descriptions of how things felt when their activity was going really well. Flow occurs when one is engaged in activities one enjoys and that extend one’s capabilities.
Flow is an optimal state because it involves a fully focused mind. When in flow, nothing disturbs or detracts from this concentrated state. Neither external nor internal distractions take up mental space. This total focus on the task at hand is a defining feature of flow. It is one of the several dimensions comprising flow, as described below:
- Challenge-skill balance. In flow, there is a perception of capability for the demands of the task one is engaged in. Described by Susan Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) as the golden rule of flow, this perceived balance between challenges and skills is the necessary precondition for flow to occur.
- Action-awareness merging. When in flow, action follows action easily, sometimes providing a sense of automaticity of movements. This sense of oneness, or merging of the self with the activity, results from the total task focus of flow.
- Clear goals. The person in flow knows clearly what it is he or she wants to do, and this clarity of purpose guides the person from moment to moment.
- Unambiguous feedback. Flow provides clear feedback regarding task performance in relation to goal accomplishment. Immediate and clear feedback allows for adjustments to be made as required to ensure that one’s performance matches one’s goals.
- Concentration on the task at hand. A defining feature of flow, a centered mind, provides the internal environment for the other flow dimensions.
- Sense of control. When in flow, there is no worry about potential loss of control. This freedom from worry over control is a liberating state.
- Loss of self-consciousness. In flow, there is freedom from self-consciousness. Instead of worrying about how one appears to other people, one is absorbed with processing information about the task at hand.
- Time transformation. Often, but not always in flow, time drops from awareness. This results in perceptions of altered time. Generally, the sense is that time speeds up, akin to the adage that time flies when one is having fun.
- Autotelic experience. The term autotelic, from the Greek words auto (self) and telos (goal), has been defined by Csikszentmihalyi as an experience that is intrinsically rewarding. This dimension is the end result of the other flow dimensions. Being in flow is an enjoyable experience, and once attained, the motivation is high to return to a flow state.
These flow dimensions work together synergistically to create an optimal psychological experience. In lay terms, flow can be described as enjoyment, and it provides highlights in one’s experience of life. Enjoyment is distinguishable from pleasure according to Csikszentmihalyi (1990). While the latter is associated with satisfaction from having needs met, it is only enjoyment that leads to growth, since enjoyable experiences move one forward and in doing so, require investment of mental energy. There are also positive developmental implications of the flow model. Flow experiences lead to growth in competence and in psychological complexity, through the continually evolving process of matching challenges with skills in an activity. Flow is not an easy state to achieve, with the matching of challenges and skills not a straightforward process in many situations. Both external and internal obstacles can keep flow experiences from occurring. It may be by one’s own choosing that negative psychological states are experienced, or the environment one is operating in may foster negative mindsets. While it may be possible to focus through the energy of negativity, flow is a much more conducive state to clear and unfettered attention toward a task, and the enjoyment arising from flow experiences generates continuing motivation toward attainment of goals.
SEE ALSO Optimism/Pessimism; Positive Psychology
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1975. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper.
Jackson, Susan A., and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1999. Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Susan A. Jackson
flow / flō/ • v. [intr.] (esp. of a fluid) move along or out steadily and continuously in a current or stream: from here the river flows north a cross-current of electricity seemed to flow between them. ∎ (of the sea or a tidal river) move toward the land; rise.Compare with ebb. ∎ (of clothing or hair) hang loosely in an easy and graceful manner: her red hair flowed over her shoulders. ∎ circulate continuously within a particular system: ventilation channels keep the air flowing an electric current flows through it. ∎ (of people or things) go from one place to another in a steady stream, typically in large numbers: the firm is hoping the orders will keep flowing in. ∎ proceed or be produced smoothly, continuously, and effortlessly: talk flowed freely around the table. ∎ (flow from) result from; be caused by: there are certain advantages that may flow from that decision. ∎ be available in copious quantities: their talk and laughter grew louder as the excellent brandy flowed. ∎ (of a solid) undergo a permanent change of shape under stress, without melting. • n. [in sing.] the action or fact of moving along in a steady, continuous stream: the flow of water into the pond. ∎ the rate or speed at which such a stream moves: under the ford the river backs up, giving a deep sluggish flow. ∎ the rise of a tide or a river. Compare with ebb. ∎ a steady, continuous stream of something: she eased the car into the flow of traffic. ∎ menstrual discharge. ∎ the gradual permanent deformation of a solid under stress, without melting. PHRASES: go with the flow inf. be relaxed and accept a situation, rather than trying to alter or control it. in full flow talking fluently and easily and showing no sign of stopping. ∎ performing vigorously and enthusiastically: Richardson was run out when he was in full flow.
For some people, surfing the Web brings on a light, trance-like state of mind that stems from being totally focused on viewing information online. Known as flow, this state of mind can make one oblivious to surroundings, and to the amount of time that passes while they are online. This is similar to what happens when one becomes completely absorbed in a book or article. The concept of flow has been around for some time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist whose interests include creativity and socialization, began using the term during the 1970s when he conducted research in the field. In 1990, Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Although flow has been studied in a number of areas, including sports, games, and work, it has especially powerful implications for companies engaging in e-commerce. Vanderbilt University Professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak have conducted research on the concept of flow as it relates to the Internet. In the Los Angeles Times, Hoffman explained: "The implications of flow go beyond advertising and are even broader for online transactions and purchases. If the online experience isn't compelling, people aren't going to stay very long on the Web in general, and your site in particular. A consequence of flow is the reinforcement of a good feeling, so much so that it may be important for encouraging repeat visits or repeat purchase behavior."
In their research, Novak, Hoffman, and Yiu-Fai Yung of the SAS Institute indicated that flow was of importance to Web site designers and online marketing professionals. Creating Web sites that provide ample excitement for a wide audience was a major challenge for designers. If users find a site uninteresting, boredom can break a pattern of flow and they'll move on to another site or an offline task. This defeats one of the central marketing tactics of e-commerce, to keep consumers on a company's site as long as possible, increasing the chance they will purchase goods or services or view online advertising.
"The Creative Flow of Change Makers." Futurist, May/June 1997.
Geirland, John and Eva Sonesh-Kedar. "Cyberculture Q&A. What Is This Thing Called Flow? Think Nirvana on the Web." Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1998.
"Internet Users Go with the 'Flow."' USA Today, April 29, 1996. Available from www.usatoday.com.
Novak, Thomas P., Donna L. Hoffman, and Yiu-Fai Yung. "Measuring the Customer Experience in Online Environments: A Structural Modeling Approach." eLab, October 7, 1999. Available from www2000.ogsm.vanderbilt.edu/flow.
SEE ALSO: Attention Economy
Hence sb. XV.