Richard Huskey, PhD, assistant professor in the department of communication at University of California, Davis. UCDavis.edu
Have you ever been so engrossed in a fun, challenging activity that it felt effortless and afterward you wondered where the time had gone? Perhaps you were playing golf…knitting or baking…even handling a challenging project at work. If so, you’ve experienced what cognitive scientists call the flow state. This state of mind often is referred to by athletes as being “in the zone,” but you don’t have to be an athlete to experience flow.
Bottom Line Personal asked Richard Huskey, PhD—who has spent the last 10 years studying the flow state and the changes it creates in the brain—how you can find it…and benefit from it.
Researchers who study this state of mind have found that flow experiences have several key features…
Action and control. Being in a flow state requires that you put forth effort and drive the outcome. People often incorrectly believe that they can achieve flow by, say, riding a roller coaster. While that might be thrilling and it shares some characteristics of the flow state, it isn’t true flow because it doesn’t call on you to exert effort to control the outcome. Other people mistake flow for “peak experiences,” such as a stroll through a brilliant autumn forest. While such moments might take your breath away and give you a sense of awe—which is certainly valuable—your posture is passive, not active, so you are not in the flow state.
Intrinsic reward. Every flow-inducing activity constitutes its own reward. In other words, it’s a lot of fun for you. You relish the pursuit not because it leads to other joys…not because it earns you money (it’s fine if it does earn you money, but only if it’s also fun for you)…and not because it gets you ahead somehow (such as finishing a dreaded task for the good feeling you’ll have once it’s completed). Example: As a skier, you might feel a sense of accomplishment after completing a difficult trail. But the extreme joy you feel while tackling the run? That is flow.
External focus. One of the key attributes of the flow state, from which it derives many of its psychological benefits, is that while you’re engaged in your activity, you’re focused exclusively on it. You’re not thinking about a work deadline or about that time you embarrassed yourself in middle school. You’re not even thinking about how you feel in that moment—instead, you’re having a near out-of-body experience, thinking only about the task at hand. In this way, flow differs from the popular concept of mindfulness, which is high awareness of your present mental and emotional state. Flow is about fully directing your attention outwardly.
Short-term focus. When you’re in the flow state, you’re not thinking about your long-term goals, not even those associated with your chosen activity. Example: If you’re practicing a new, difficult piano piece, all you’re thinking about during the flow state is hitting the right notes in the right way—not about someday playing at Carnegie Hall or even about next month’s recital.
High skill and high challenge. These probably are the most important aspects of flow. The flow state occurs only when you’re doing something that you’re highly skilled at…and when you’re doing it in a way that challenges that high skill level. We’re all pretty skillful dishwashers, but it’s unlikely that any of us will enter a flow state through washing dishes because it just isn’t challenging enough. Choose an activity that’s too easy for you, and you’ll feel boredom, not flow. Choose an activity where your skills are rudimentary, and all you’ll think about is how hard it is and how frustrated you are. Flow depends on a sweet spot, the perfect pairing of skill and challenge.
Effortlessness. Despite exerting themselves considerably, people in flow hardly notice their efforts. Time speeds up. Examples: Highly skilled video gamers often describe setting up to play a game in the early afternoon, and “coming to” after nightfall, hungry and thirsty and not having noticed the passage of time. Marathoners often stay “in the zone” right up until they cross the finish line and only then realize how exhausted their bodies are.
Psychologists have learned a lot in recent years about what the brain looks like when it is in the flow state. Scientists from University of Ulm in Germany have found strong evidence that when a person enters the flow state, activity decreases in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with thinking about oneself. This evidence supports psychologists’ description of flow as a state of externally focused attention.
Researchers also have found compelling evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests that two other parts of the brain become activated during flow. The frontoparietal control network, associated with goal-oriented behaviors, shows increased activity during flow. That’s not surprising, since this portion of the brain is activated when people perform highly skilled tasks. But what’s interesting is that the brain areas associated with reward processing also become activated during flow—and there’s reason to believe there’s a feedback loop between the frontoparietal control network and those pleasure centers. In other words, performing the highly skilled task triggers a reward response that encourages you to keep doing the task, which triggers additional reward.
We also have uncovered evidence that, during flow, the brain reconfigures itself so it requires less energy—kind of a “battery-saver mode.” That may explain why flow activities feel effortless and time flies while you are doing them.
Researchers are making real progress identifying the brain changes associated with flow, but they haven’t yet linked these neurological patterns directly to well-being. Still, many such benefits have been observed or self-reported…
Higher skill. Spending time in the flow state appears to make you better at the activity.
Mood boost. Being in flow just feels good. If you’re having a crummy day, getting into flow for a spell can lift your spirits.
Increased resilience. People who regularly experience flow appear better-equipped to bounce back after disappointments.
Greater productivity. Frequent flow experiences appear to reduce procrastination, prevent burnout and increase motivation.
Mental health. Flow is associated with lower risk for anxiety and depression.
General happiness. People who often go into flow report greater life satisfaction.
Determine your flow activity. Chances are there’s some activity that you’re already very good at. Think about your hobbies—especially about games you love, since games have been called “flow experiences par excellence.” Are you an excellent golfer? Really good at chess? An avid mountain biker? A talented knitter? Whatever it is that you excel at…that gives you joy…and that challenges you is likely to be your best path to the flow state. That even might include your job. Research shows that people experience flow at work all the time. If you feel that you’re on a high during a shift, firing on all cylinders, and that eight hours go by in a minute, you’re in flow.
Of course, you can always just wait for flow to come along. But if you’re trying to cultivate it in your life, picking an activity that you’re good at and that challenges you will give you the best chance of finding it.
Caution: Don’t try to wring flow out of purely leisurely activities. You might really enjoy watching TV or sipping beer while you pitch horseshoes with friends. But those activities won’t put you in flow because they’re either passive or low-challenge.
Find the sweet spot. Once you’ve decided on the activity that will be your conduit to the flow state, make a conscious decision to push yourself to the next level so that you’re at that sweet spot between skill and challenge. If it’s a game, seek out an opponent who’s just a little better than you. If it’s knitting, find a new pattern that calls on all of your skill. If it’s your work, seek some new challenge to ensure you stay in the flow state.
There’s no such thing as spending too much time in the flow state. Frequently experiencing flow could make you happier, healthier, more productive and more skilled at your favorite tasks.