The science of flow

What did the Hungarian with the hard-to-pronounce name find out?

Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, Csikszentmihalyi found that the flow moments take place far less in those zones where people lie comfortably on the beach or chill comfortably in front of the TV. Rather, they can be found in those zones where people are highly focused, sometimes at the limit of their abilities, busy completing a certain task, or achieving a certain goal.

And yes, you already guessed correctly: We leave the terrain of the task comfort zone, in which failures were impossible, and enter the riskier zones of action. When evaluating the results, Csikszentmihalyi identified a specific pattern. He found out that there was something he called a “flow channel.” This was a zone in which people got into an inner condition that included a combination of high concentration, immersion and virtuoso, light-footed action.

In this zone, people felt less like acting themselves and more like things were happening by themselves.

In addition, he identified two other zones:

  1. the zone of overburdening and
  2. the zone of low challenge.

Following the question of how the participants of the study reached the flow state, it quickly became clear that they were pursuing a goal or overcoming a challenge that led them to the edges of their current skills.

They were still able to master the current task reasonably confidently and yet at the same time they were in an area of challenge in which they could and had to learn. (1)

With each new mastery of the task, they developed their skills to the point where they became experienced (2). At this point, they began to move into the low challenge zone (3). Only when they set themselves more demanding, new, or different goals did they move back to the flow zone (4).

Where subjects set goals that they could not cope with their existing abilities and resources (5), they entered the overwhelming zone, which was characterized by fear of failure and threatening feelings. Only the correction of the target led them back to the flow zone (4).

With the experience of making a difference on one hand and the flow experience on the other, the participants developed a motivation over time that came from within. This motivation was more focused on the process of coping with challenges and continuous learning than on the result of their efforts.