Many of us have lost track of time doing activities we love, especially if those activities are fully engaging our minds and bodies. The ability to fully focus on our surroundings, as we call mindfulness, allows us to access the optimal versions of ourselves, as well as the utmost in experiencing our own lives.
When we do things that we’re passionate about, it’s easy to get wrapped up in them to the extent that our minds and bodies unify, causing us to completely focus on the task at hand – what we call a flow state.
While the practice of mindfulness helps to carve out space in our minds for entering a flow state, the regular experience of being in a flow state also helps us practice mindfulness. The two go hand-in-hand, with a cyclical relationship that can help any individual become more engaged with their environment. So, what exactly is a flow state?
What is a Flow State?
The concept of a flow state was created by positive psychology co-founder Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who believed that happiness was not a rigid state of being. Rather, he believed that happiness was malleable and somewhat controllable by the individual, and that people were most happy when they were in a state of flow.
He described the flow state as one in which the individual is so enmeshed in what they’re doing, that nothing else seems to matter to them. This kind of experience largely comes with highly engaging tasks which are also incredibly enjoyable for the person doing them.
8 Characteristics of a Flow State
Flow is defined by eight characteristics, according to Csikszentmihalyi:
- Full Concentration on a Task
- Clarity of Goals and a Reward in Mind
- Time Dilation
- Intrinsically Rewarding
- Balance Between Skills and Challenges
- Actions and Awareness Completely Merge
- A Personal Feeling of Control Over the Task
Getting into a flow state really only requires three things. First, we must be doing something that we love to do. It must be something that we do for its’ own reward, and not attached to any outside gains.
Second, it must challenge us. The challenge should not feel overwhelming, as if we can’t reach it. Inversely, it must also be enough challenge that it requires significant effort and the full use of our skills to reach the goal.
Lastly, there must be immediate feedback on our progress. Like trying to shoot a basket, sink a putt, or make the flower box look just perfect, we have to know how we are doing along the way.
Flow is such an enjoyable and salubrious experience that is has been associated with a host of health and cognitive benefits. Studies have shown that it reduces the rate of addiction, boosts mood, improves cognitive function, and supports mental health. It has also been demonstrated to improve immunity, help heal wounds, contribute to longevity, and enhance physical performance. And, perhaps most importantly, flow helps us become more mindful in our daily lives.
How Challenge Captivates Us
It has long been said that without challenge, we cannot grow. When our skills and talents are not required to stretch to meet the task, we cannot improve. However, challenge is a bit of a dicey topic, because if we don’t get the amount of challenge right, we don’t improve.
Ideally, challenge should be just below our skill level. This is what is known as the flow channel, and what induces us into flow. When challenge is too low, we become bored; and when it is too high, we become overwhelmed. When it is just right, we get into flow, because meeting the challenge requires all our effort and there is no other cognitive space to be thinking about what is for dinner, what we forgot to do before we left the office, or what we have left to do before the week is over.
The interesting thing about the flow channel is that the minute our attention wanders, we get immediate feedback – our performance declines. And because we are doing something we love and we have a specific goal, this instant grade on our performance becomes an incentive to stay in the moment, to keep our full attention centered on what we are doing, and to put aside all of our other worries, concerns, and frustrations.
A Little Less Self-Narration
We all have that little voice in our heads that tells us we just said the wrong thing, we should’ve seen that mistake coming, and we are not doing good enough. The problem with this self-conscious voice is that, although it seems to have our best interest in mind – to get us to do better – it also leads to a lot of self-doubt.
Self-doubt makes us doubly self-conscious. Not only do we think that we are not doing something right – because that voice tells us so – we come to second guess ourselves and believe that we are doing worse than we really are. We might become so afraid of the voice that it interferes with our ability to focus – sort of like trying to give a speech while listening to a narration of it in your head.
This little self-narrator takes us, and keeps us, out of the moment because, after a while, it becomes a constant presence in our head, and the difficulty is that we begin to doubt ourselves all the time.
Yet, the interesting thing about flow is that because it is based on challenges that are hard but possible, and gives us accurate feedback – not the self-narrated kind – it builds our confidence. We can see the direct result of our attempts. And because to do well, we have to focus completely on the task at hand, there is no space left over to hear that little annoying voice.
When Awareness Aligns with Action
Many of us are familiar with thoughts like, “I have to do this, and then that, and after that, this.” It’s almost as if our lives require constant planning. Maybe this feels true, but the problem is that it’s impossible to be in the present moment when we are planning for the next one.
Being in the moment requires presence in that moment, allowing whatever comes up in that moment to be experienced. This is actually the opposite of planning, which ignores the present moment in service of getting ready for the next one.
In a flow state there is no planning – the challenge is too difficult to plan for, and feedback is so immediate that there is not time to predict what it will be. In this immediate state, anticipation is removed because there is simply no space for it. We become so busy reacting to what is happening now that we don’t have time to guess what will happen next.
In this immediacy, our actions simply take on a life of their own. We are just reacting to what is right in front of us. There is also no time in a flow state to be anywhere but the moment – completely mindful of its intricacies.
Becoming mindful can be a challenge in and of itself. The things that steal our attention out of the moment are numerous, and we likely cannot account for all of them. This is precisely why we need time and space dedicated to the present moment. Keeping us captivated with challenges, quieting that little voice in our heads, and merging our actions with awareness, the flow state might be one of the best gateways to mindfulness.