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The Psychology Behind Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory and Happiness

skateboarder happy in flow

There are many ways to describe the trance-like focus an athlete or an artist goes into during competition: fierce focus, in the zone, locked in, obsessed, complete immersion.

This highly focused mental state is what Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Thanks to his research and studies, we better understand what being in the zone does to our happiness and intrinsic motivation.

We all want to live a more fruitful, happier life — right?

So, let’s take a look at what Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow and happiness is, and how you can use it’s principles to hack your mind into a naturally more motivated state.

What is Flow?

According to distinguished Psychology Professor and management founder & co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC) Mahily Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” is a joyful state of mind one enters when trying to reach a goal in a challenging activity that is well suited to our skills.

Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

In other words, flow is like the saying, “getting lost in one’s work.”

The joyful experience of being in flow leads to better performance, motivation towards long-term goals, and other overall positive effects.

Ever been so lost in an activity that you lost sense of time? You were so immersed in whatever you were doing at the moment that you didn’t notice the time passed.

People, such as athletes, who experience flow regularly are more likely to develop positive traits, including higher self-esteem, better concentration, and general performance. And, this seems to be correlated with the growing body of evidence that flow improves one’s subjective well-being and psychological well-being.

Tasks That Put You in Flow

To find yourself in flow, the task you are engaged in must be intentionally voluntary — it cannot feel like a meaningless chore. The task must be enjoyable to pique the interest of the person.

Now, this may be subjective. To one, sweeping may feel like a chore, but it may be soothing, almost therapeutic to another. Therefore, we all may have different tasks that may take us into the flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory involves specific criteria:

  1. Having a clear goal
  2. Receiving immediate feedback (in some form) from one’s input
  3. Having a balance between skill and challenge
  4. Merging awareness with action
  5. Excluding distractions from your consciousness
  6. No worrying of failure
  7. Abolishing self-consciousness
  8. Distorting one’s sense of time
  9. Engaging in the activity becoming an end in itself

The Autotelic Self

A person in flow feels well in control, though at the same time they are acting in an almost autonomous state. One’s subconscious cerebral thoughts have taken over. There is no need for emotion or consciousness when what you are doing is being calculated and carried out by “muscle memory.”

Some people are better at this than others.

Csikszentmihalyi would say that this person has found their “autotelic self,” — someone who is “never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time.”

What is Happiness?

Everyone has a theory of what happiness is; money, possessions, experiences, value, power, etc. This too is subjective in that as individuals, different things make each and every one of us happy.

Professor Csikszentmihalyi tells of his 7 habits of happy people, and they range from:

  • Relationships — a network of people in your life in which they value
  • Acts of kindness — outward expression from one person to another
  • Exercise and physical wellbeing — the training of one’s body and mind to establish strength and endurance
  • Flow — submersion of oneself to obtain a goal
  • Spiritual engagement and meaning — engagement of spiritual and religious connection
  • Strength and virtues — discovery and reliance on one’s inner characteristics such as perseverance and resilience
  • Positive mindset — putting things into perspective and having a positive attitude to do better

Professor Csikszentmihalyi tells us that our happiness consists of three factors; genetic makeup, our environment, and our actions.

For example, a person may experience happiness through their accomplishments at work. They were probably raised to be successful, their friends and family were successful, and they applied themselves. Their habits may consist of their reliance on their strength and virtues of perseverance and resilience to get the job and make money.

One thing is sure; happiness is an inherent emotion that everyone deserves to experience.

Flow and Happiness

The notion of flow requires focus and determination, and happiness requires expression and actions. These two terms can co-exist to create happiness through the structure.

Here are seven steps to creating happiness through the state of flow.

  1. Identify Goals
    Find something you want to achieve that can spark happiness and creativity. This can also be a task at work that you want to complete that may be complex. This may also include situations that may manifest themselves as challenges, setbacks, or anything that requires you to plan the process to overcome methodically.
  2. Make a Plan
    Create a plan on how you can accomplish the goal and reach the desired end state. It is common practice to reverse plan; start from the end and work your way backward to the beginning. Set tasks as miles stones to allow you to go back to instead of starting all over.
  3. Be Present and Focused in the Moment
    Once you set your plan in place, be present and eliminate all distractions. This is where the concept of flow may begin, so remaining focused is essential. Remember that the attitude that we take when we do something affects the outcome.
  4. Establish an Inner Dialogue
    Talk to yourself and remind yourself of what you are doing and what you are doing it for. Do not be discouraged by what you might look like if someone sees you talking to yourself. Keep in mind that it is you and the goal.
  5. Establish Good Habits
    Make this a common practice of how you achieve your goals or accomplish your tasks. Create good patterns of work that support goal achievement and sparks creativity and happiness.
  6. Rest and Meditate
    Rest is the best form to decompress from the stresses of constant pressure. Meditation gives you the ability to reflect and refocus your mind. Studies support Csikszentmihalyi’s point of feedback in his criteria of flow in identifying blind sports. Meditation allows for one to remember blinds sports or things to improve, much like the purpose of feedback.
  7. Rejoice in Your Happiness
    Happiness is an emotion that is simple to achieve but is challenging to maintain. By applying the fierce focus of flow, one can foster happiness and find joy in their lives.

Mahily Csikszentmihalyi is a brilliant professor of psychology that tells us that happiness is not secured but can be harnessed through the mastering of flow.

The way we view challenges will determine the attitude we take toward the achievement of the task. This is why Csikszentmihalyi refers to mindfulness, being present, and acknowledging what is happening and what needs to be done.

Live present and positive, have dominion over your thoughts, and maintain a fierce focus.

Sources

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, & Csikzsentmihalyi, Isabella Selega (Eds.). (1988). Optimal Experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Marr, A. J. (2001). In the zone: A biobehavioral theory of the flow experience. Athletic Insight,3(1).

Pursuit of Happiness. (n.d.). The Science of Happiness and Positive Psychology. Retrieved August 16, 2021, from https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/science-of-happiness/