What is flow and how to reach it?

Some believe that flow is the secret of happiness. In positive psychology, it describes an optimal experience, a moment when we are so absorbed in our task that we ignore everything around us.

What is flow?

In psychology, flow corresponds to a state in which we are so focused on our task that we no longer realise that we are working. Flow at work implies maximum productivity. But this concept goes far beyond the work environment and can be useful to us during other activities.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Where does the flow come from?

The concept of flow was defined in 1975 by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. By working on the notions of happiness and creativity, he identified a state during which we are "totally absorbed by an activity", as he explained in an interview for the magazine Wired in 1996. "Every action, every movement, every thought inevitably stems from what preceded it, as if you were playing jazz. Your whole being is implicated and you use your abilities to their fullest.»


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined flow and explained its methodology in a book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. This book gives keys to discovering the flow and reaching it.


How to reach the flow?

We live an optimal experience when our concentration reaches its maximum, in a field that we master. Thus, there is no optimal experience possible when we do not have a sufficiently difficult challenge to meet, nor when we conduct an activity that we do not master. The diagram below gives an overview of our different psychological states according to the situation.

flow diagram different psychological states

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi summarises the flow with below major elements:

  • a complex but doable task

  • a high level of concentration

  • control of events

  • the satisfaction of doing an activity, without worrying about the result

  • the feeling of being "out of time"

But there is no such thing as reaching the flow as quickly as possible. The researcher indicates, still in Wired: "realise that changes and breaks are important. » According to him, the optimal experience does not happen overnight. It is necessary to get to it little by little before being able to feel it.


What are the benefits of flow?

When we are focused enough, we do not lose time to look around. No more distractions like notifications on the phone or that piece of chocolate on the corner of the table. Our mind is totally focused on the activity and thus we are much more efficient. It is also gratifying from a personal point of view because no distracting thought prevents us from completing our task successfully. It also allows us to partially get rid of the stress associated with the completion of the task. Only the present moment matters.


In which situation can we apply flow?

Flow can be applied in many situations. At work, it helps to handle tasks efficiently. But the optimal experience can show up in many other areas. Musicians are particularly concerned because the flow allows them to find unparalleled alchemy when they play their instruments. But athletes can also find their happiness in the flow, individually or collectively, because it can free them from the pressure of the result.

Flow is a concept that has many different applications and that we can live on a daily basis, during each of our activities.


Ted Talk : Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi "Flow, the secret of happiness"


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