How To Know You’re In Flow: 9 Aspects of Optimal Experience

“Flow” is the state of consciousness of optimal human experience, and it is here that success lies waiting. But how do you know you’ve…

Man in flow state rock climbing for article titled “how to know you’re in a flow state” on The Creative Mind

I am an ordinary everyday unknown, and I engage in work such as writing and drawing because I enjoy it. That’s as much as I know.

There is no more profound reason, as far as I have been able to tell, as to why I do these things. In many ways, these things do themselves, and my only job is to take me to the place of work, then the work takes over.

When I’m not writing or drawing my mind wanders to where these things might take me. Ambition comes in, and metrics begin to matter. Thoughts of success or failure occupy my mind, and ulterior motivation takes over. It’s here that the work ceases to be enjoyable, and my relationship with it is at risk of becoming transactional.

But when I’m in the work, all that matters is the work. There’s only me and the story, or me and the portrait I’m trying to recreate, and it is here that I am happiest. Time goes by so fast. I don’t feel hungry, and rest is often not a concern.

I forget about other responsibilities like collecting the kids, or taking the rashers out from under the grill!

About six weeks ago, I totally carbonised my lunch and the whole house filled with smoke. I didn’t even hear the smoke alarms activating such was my immersion in what I was writing that afternoon.

It took weeks to get rid of the smell from the house.

I didn’t have a name for it before I read Csikszentmihalyi’s book on Flow, but when I did, I recognised it instantly. I get the same feeling when I do a tough workout or a hard run, something that tests my physical limits. It seems that the I that I refer to as me disappears.

When I’m doing daily work that pays the bills, I often have the same experience. I work for myself, and as I go from job to job and from place to place, solutions I must employ always vary. In that, there is curiosity, an interesting landscape and creative challenge. I don’t doubt if I am in the right place or doing the right thing — although it wasn’t always that way — because, after 30+ years, I simply commence the work and then learned processes take over.

I still need to do some forebrain thinking and assessment, but once I decide on a course of action, the work does itself.

When I sit down to write the experience is similar, although, I admit I am not as proficient a writer as I am a tradesman. Writing processes are becoming a lot more automatic for me the more I write, but I have to think about it more.

The subjective experience is the same, even though the work is different. I get lost in the work. This is what Flow feels like for me.

The Opposite of Peak Experience

We all know what enjoyment feels like, or at least we think we do.

As our western industrialised consumer culture influences our concepts of life and work, we develop a mixed-up idea of what constitutes relaxation and enjoyment.

Within our framework for living, we primarily believe that work is hassle and toil, something we’d rather not do given a choice. The opposite of work is rest and enjoyment, which usually consists of relaxing on the couch, watching TV, scrolling through social media or socialising etc.

Risky activities such as drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or engaging in frivolous sex are common. Other pastimes, perhaps less damaging to physical health, include excessive shopping or attention to outward appearance.

But these activities are superficial, generally of low complexity, non-challenging and passive in nature.

In other words, engaging with these activities doesn’t involve high-level mental capacity or physical effort. They bring little if any positive development of the self and keep us from experiencing optimal performance.

At best we get a serotonin or dopamine hit.

As such, we live our lives pogo-sticking between laborious daily work we hate and frivolous attempts to escape it. We feel a constant low-level psychological disturbance, one that’s just about tolerable at best.

At worst we feel isolated, anxious and depressed, unsure of our place in the world.

Creativity in Optimal Human Experience

So as the predominant human experience consists of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction occasionally broken by spatterings of relief in the form of passive, non-complex activities, I wonder why this is.

Why do we willingly forego our own happiness for the sake of work we don’t like and then engage in behaviour that just makes it worse?

Are we meant to merely survive and pay bills?

That’s hardly a reason enough for living, let alone working.

My curiosity regarding the nature of the human condition concerning happiness in work has led me to research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Image of mihaly csikszentmihalyi leaning against a tree

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

In the early 1990s, funded by the Spencer Foundation, Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues set out on a four-year research project to establish how the process of creativity unfolded over a lifetime.

The results of which, coupled with 30 years of creativity research, were to culminate in the 1996 publication, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery & Invention.

In the course of the research, high achieving participants were asked to choose from a list of feelings that best described the sensation they felt when engaged in their work or activity.

The most frequent answer returned, Csikszentmihalyi says, was “designing or discovering something new.”

This seems accurate. It’s curiosity, i.e. what can I make with this thing, how far can I push it and bend it without breaking it?

The goal for us in our daily work, therefore, is to immerse ourselves in it and allow it to take us to optimal experience, to a state of Flow. In this psychological state, we have an opportunity to create something unique and remarkable, and ultimately live an engaged, fulfilling and happy life.

“The optimal experience is what I have called flow, because many of the respondents described the feeling when things were going well as an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.

- Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi

The 9 Psychological Aspects of Optimal Experience

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that genuinely creative people, the ones who stand out against the backdrop of mediocrity (my words not his), are the ones who are motivated by the enjoyment that comes from confronting challenges.

Without them, he says, there is no evolution of culture or progress in thought or feeling. Therefore he askes, what does enjoyment in the optimal experience of Flow involve?

Csikszentmihalyi offers the following 9 Psychological Aspects of Optimal Experience that he and his team have found present most frequently in subjects.

Participants in the research, artists, sportspeople, academics and ordinary working people reported in almost identical terms, their experience of Flow in the course of their work.

Researchers found nine main elements that were mentioned many times over in describing how enjoyment feels.

#1 Clear Goals Exist

In the flow state, we appear always to know what needs to be done. Tasks are goal-directed and bounded by rules. There is, in the majority of cases, clarity of purpose.

These goal-directed activities require skills that have taken many years to develop, to such an extent that the work almost performs itself.

I can relate to this.

In my daily work, I often find myself disappeared, absent for a short period in a particular task. Then I find all of a sudden, whatever it is seems to be doing itself.

In contrast, I also find myself completely lost in something ordinary for no apparent reason. For example, the birch trees on my road moving in the breeze. Csikszentmihalyi calls this “a spontaneous sense of wellbeing”.

#2 Feedback

Although Csikszentmihalyi talks in the book about the immediate feedback of high-intensity sports such as tennis, feedback is not always so sharp and initial.

When I draw, the feedback I need is not always apparent straight away. It takes time, and I won’t see the compound result of 15 mins work until I stop and stand back.

When I draw, feedback is slower, but it is there, and it provides direction even though I may not have a clear path to the completed drawing.

Csikszentmihalyi admits that what constitutes feedback is often considerably different from domain to domain.

#3 Balance of Challenge & Skill

This component refers to the matching of our skill level to the challenge at hand. If, for example, we are engaged in a task we are not sufficiently skilled to complete, there can be frustration.

On the other hand, if we are over-skilled for the task, there is a lack of stimulation and no growth is possible.

We get bored.

No one enjoys a game in which they get well beaten. Similarly, we don’t enjoy winning by too much. A fine balance, a nip-and-tuck affair is what we are after.

#4 Action & Awareness Merge

In the flow state, one-pointedness of mind is required. There is no room for concern about other things we think we should be doing.

When our skills are required right here and now to deal with the challenges of the situation, we are entirely absorbed. Csikszentmihalyi says there is no available psychic energy available for other tasks.

Well, there goes the argument for multitasking!

As a result of this absorption in the activity, behaviour becomes spontaneous; we are consumed quite literally by the task and feedback is immediate. There is no time for consideration.

“So much of what we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to it, or we expect some future benefit.”

- Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi

#5 Loss of Self Consciousness

In normal everyday life, most human beings have great concern for how the social unit perceives them.

We are hiding behind a social mask ready to defend ourselves against attack from our peers and other members of society. Typically, Csikszentmihalyi says, this awareness of self is a burden.

In a flow state, we are too concerned with the activity for the ego to have any influence over our focus and concentration. Once the condition of flow has completed, we can be said to be more centred, more complex than we were before.

Paradoxically, the self expands as a result of ego exclusion during flow.

#6 No Concern For Failure

When entirely engaged in an activity, there is no concern for failure. There is only a feeling of complete control of the circumstances.

The idea of failure doesn’t even come into play. This is in contrast to what might otherwise be called arrogance — fear of failure in disguise.

With arrogance, we have already lost.

In a state where we feel merged with the work, there is, as mentioned earlier, no room for thought about the right or wrong move.

There is no mental commentary. We are one with our most authentic self.

#7 Distractions Are Excluded

We touched on this already. Enjoyment in a flow experience comes about as a result of intense concentration on the present. There is no room for idle thoughts about the weather or our financial problems.

One of the participants, a climber, describes it as follows;

It’s a Zen feeling, like meditation or concentration. Somehow the right thing is done without you even thinking about it or doing anything at all…It just happens.

Csikszentmihalyi says, there appears to be a loss of the sense of self separate from the world, a oneness with the environment. Here, distraction simply doesn’t come into play.

Another note to add regarding distraction is our limited attention capacity. As such, creative people are often considered rude, short-tempered and selfish.

Csikszentmihalyi says that these are not personality traits of creative people, but instead are characteristics we attribute to them based on our perceptions and expectations.

It is the demands of their role and the intensity of their work that often means less attention for others. Creative people, he says, tend to be caring and sensitive.

#8 Timelessness

I love this one.

When I’m writing or drawing or engaged in my daily work at my absolute highest, I lose time completely.

Take, for example, writing this article; I have been at it for hours, I know I have, but I have no care for time. Exactly how much time I don’t know, but often when I come out of my office at the back of the garden, the whole family are gone to bed.

I think; Jesus, how long have I been in there!

Csikszentmihalyi’s participants report that time seems to become distorted; it doesn’t pass as it usually does in the surface level world of ordinary mortals (my words again).

The rhythm and pace of the activity dictate our actions in the flow state. Clocks and outside worldly measures fall away as the activity takes us.

Hours pass in what seems to be minutes.

#9 Activity Becomes Autotelic

Left to last, an essential aspect of optimal experience and perhaps the most significant one is the engagement in the act for its own sake. Optimal experience is an end in itself.

An autotelic experience is one that is self-contained and is not engaged with out of expectation of future reward, but simply because the doing in of itself is reward enough.

When you and I have an autotelic experience, we are paying attention to the activity right here and now. Our mental capacities are undiluted by future consequences.

In other words, if you make art primarily because of the response you expect, you are not making art.

“Loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. what slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of the self.”

- Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi

In Conclusion

I received particular value from this book and the related book, Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, especially from sections dealing with the creative personality and the flow of creativity.

Some of the reports on the creative process from contributing artists, writers and scientists I have resonated with also.

However, where it failed in the reporting of the creative process for me, was in its significant lean towards a competition-based purpose for creative work and the highlighted importance of validation of creative work by critics and peers.

In his closing remarks, Csikszentmihalyi insists that, quote;

“As you can learn to operate within a domain, your life is certainly going to become more creative…”

I wouldn’t be so sure about that Milhaly, carry on.

“…but it should be repeated that this does not guarantee creativity with a capital C. You can be personally creative as you please, but if the domain and field fail to cooperate — as they most always do — your efforts will not be recorded in the history books.

It’s his book, and he can write what he wants, but in the differentiation between what Csikszentmihalyi calls “big C” and “little c” creativity, we lose the real reason for creative expression.

Although he does acknowledge that for most of his subjects, their engagement in their domain of choice was primarily for its inherent enjoyment, he keeps coming back to broader acceptance as being a vital component.

The reason for this, I think is that perhaps many academics crave peer acceptance and validation, and maybe he is voicing his own inherent desires here rather than a universal prerequisite for valid creative expression.

Csikszentmihalyi also refers to luck (several times in both books) as being a component in your commercial success as artists.

Now, I have real trouble with this word and find it remarkable that an academic of his stature would choose to use it.

I may write further on the nonsensical nature of this word, luck. For now, though, suffice it to say that luck is a cheap and nasty wastebasket term used to explain phenomena that we don’t yet understand, and perhaps never can.

As far as I am concerned, if we are going to use the concept of luck in the reporting of research, we might as well go back to believing in a white-bearded old man sitting on a cloud bestowing fortune and misfortune on us at his discretion.

Final Words

Creativity is fundamentally a means of self-expression and self-definition in the face of what we are not.

Creative expression, the process and the result, are the outward manifestation of something which ultimately cannot be expressed. Such is why we continue to evolve as a species.

Outwardly we expand from the known to the unknown.

We fill the vacuum albeit temporarily because as soon as we fill it, it’s created again.

The creative process to me is gestalt, and although we find enjoyment and stimulation from its exploration, we will never get to its core.

For if we did, then the cat would be out of the bag. The mystery and curiosity would be lost, and life would cease to exist.