Flow Explained



One of the greatest questions of human history is the question of meaning and purpose, specifically related to happiness and contentment. I have already looked at different existential philosophies in previous blogs, so this one will be focused less on those and more on the concept of flow. What is flow? Flow is a state of consciousness that leads to ultimate satisfaction in whatever a person is engaged in. This means that flow isn't referring to a grandiose goal, or some sort of list of things that will bring happiness. Instead it is a way of living where each moment is lived with satisfaction and joy. Few people have the ability to turn obstacles and hardships into building blocks of self confidence. There are millions of self help and confidence building books out there so I will spare you the time and only write about the most essential topics associated with this state of flow. Looking back in history, eastern traditions such as Daoism and Buddhism have described this state as Wu Wei or nirvana respectively. We will first analyze these two traditions and then move on to the modern concept of flow highlighted by the Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (I still don't know his name!) Mihaly's book, Flow, is a national bestseller and a foundational text for cognitive behavioral and personal therapy. He takes inspiration from Viktor Frankl, another psychiatrist who wrote about his WW2 concentration camp experiences in the book, The Man's Search For Meaning. Anyone who has the slightest interest in positive psychology or philosophy of mind should check out both the books mentioned above. With that said, let us start back in China with Lao Tzu's idea of Wu Wei, or effortless non-doing.

Eastern Culture- Wu Wei and Monkey Mind

What does effortless non-doing mean? How is this supposed to make someone happy when it just leads to laziness? You might have these questions initially because effortlessness is often misunderstood in the west as not trying. What Lao Tzu is referring to here is a state of complete control and focus, but paired with effortless outward showcase. In other words the internal state is so concentrated and peaceful that there are very little outward changes in behavior. The person almost feels as if they are floating in an endless river with no waves. The paradox is that the person does not attempt to be relaxed. Instead, the person attempts to let go of all distractions outside of the present moment. In this way, the person's consciousness is unified and has no resistance from self doubt, or confusion. As the person gets more concentrated, he feels greater intrinsic reward of confidence which feeds back to the brain to become more concentrated. This loop of intrinsic satisfaction and concentration relaxes our daily worries and allows us to flow through time. The Buddhists build upon this to explain how to conquer the monkey mind, the daily mind of worries and anxieties. By staying mindful, and practicing diligence, the young bodhisattva is able to tame his restless mind. The more he meditates, the more he balances the calm and focused energies. At will, he is able to rid himself of distractions and start a project with full conscience. Happiness is really just this feeling of ease and balance. Activities that require hyperexcitation often lead to anxiety, while activities that are associated with relaxation lead to boredom. Our stable mind is always in one of these extremes. But by practicing mindfulness, we improve our concentration and the feedback of self confidence and ease. We enjoy the most mundane moments in life because we no longer need extrinsic rewards. Instead, our creativity and diligence is able to transform a challenging or boring activity into something intrinsically valuable. It is from this premise that Mihaly writes his book, Flow. From my reading, I found his examples very insightful and relatable. Let us look at what he refers to when he claims that all of us have the ability to change the state of our minds, hence our ability to feel effortless flow.

Elements of Enjoyment

Mihaly's research on various artists, rock climbers, surgeons, and performers suggests eight characteristics that outline a general flow state. Each of these could relate differently for different people based on their profession.

  1. Challenging activity that requires skill (picture above is perfect illustration of this)

  2. Merging of Action and Agent

  3. Clear goals and Feedback

  4. Intense concentration

  5. Sense of control under stress

  6. Loss of self consciousness

  7. No worries about passing time (fast or slow)

  8. Autotelic- the process is more valuable than the destination.

Challenge and skill

A flow state is reached when a person has to perform an act skillfully while being challenged. If the challenge is too hard, the person is demotivated, and if there is no skill required then the person has no intrinsic reward. Instead, when the person has the right amount of challenge, and continuously builds skills to beat that challenge, the person is said to evolve and grow. This phenomena is depicted very elegantly in the diagram at the top. The self-growth is characterized as something that gives intrinsic satisfaction. It makes the person more 'complex' as the tasks get harder and more skills are learned. Complexity just refers to becoming more adept at problem solving; in other words having more tools at our fingertips in moment of challenge. This is why we enjoy learning new things, but they get bored once we get used to them. We can get back to the flow state if we slightly change that activity so that it is more challenging and hence more rewarding. The old saying goes no pain, no gain. But instead of looking at this as something that shows wits and grits, it could also be pointing to the positive side of pain. Maybe the joy of overcoming pain and growing one's sense of self is the most satisfying experience one can have. On the other hand, anxiety and apathy may just be symptoms of a person who hasn't had a chance to grow their self adequately in face of increasing challenges. 

Merging of Action and Agent/ Loss of Self

In our daily lives, we often do things for the sake of feeling good about ourselves. There is an agent behind the action that judges whether the action is pleasant or unpleasant. However, during flow states this intimate connection of self is lost. The self extends itself to the system of performance. The dancer becomes the dancer, the rock climber becomes the climbing, the writer becomes the writing. The explanation behind this is that our psychic energy is so focused on the task at hand, that we are less worried about how that task is done or what we gain out of it. Usually, we spend half energy doing a task, and the other half examining its effects on our self, and our self concept. But when we let go of worrying about the consequences, all energy is focused on the task itself. There is little time to worry about ourself. The Zen master suggests us to take yourself out of the picture, and do the work sincerely. Often times we are defending our self concept and fighting an internal battle. Our monkey minds are constantly defending themselves from anxiety and panic of previous thoughts and feelings. Thus the flow state feels relieving because it focuses all energy on the action at hand and gives no attention to the self. It is almost a hassle worrying about ourselves all the time- we get tired and exhausting about creating the best image of ourself in our minds. So the minds feels pleasant when it can let go of all that and just do the work in the present moment.

Intense Concentration

Concentration is perhaps the most cliché characteristic of a flow state, and for a good reason. Concentration simply improves cognition and efficiency of the task at hand. This doesn't always lead to doing things faster, but rather doing things in more meaningful ways. Concentration enhances our memory recall and retention and therefore allows us to experience something very deeply. A flow state is a state where we are completely concentrated on the task, the procedures and the progress. We are not concentrated on the results or consequences of our actions. If we get lost in the consequences, we waste some energy that could be used to concentrate even more. Concentration is a way of unifying the mind so that all of our mental contents are focused on one thing, Multitasking may get work done quickly, but when you look back at your experience, you hardly remember any enjoyable moments. On the other hand, if we think of a time when you were very concentrated (like in a chess competition or track race), you can remember the most subtle details of that experience. The point is, concentration enriches the experience of the present moment, and this naturally leads to more pleasant emotions. 

Clear goals and feedback

One of the most important features of flow state is the intrinsic reward. The behaviorist theory suggests that the actions that give pleasure are adapted quickly while actions that give pain are avoided to great extent. But the reality is that life is not as binary as pain and pleasure. Life is a mixture of doing things that may not always give us pleasure and going through pain when things take a wrong turn. In these moments, it is important to set mental goals for ourselves to stay grounded. Even the most devastating life event can provide an opportunity to stay calm and motivated if we set ourselves SMART goals. These goals are subjective so they can be as easy or hard according to the individual. The important thing is to be reflective and gain an insight about our ability to perform that goal. When we set a goal, our energies are more coordinated and the ratio of expenditure to reward is leveled off. This means that even though we have to put in energy to perform a task, it quickly gives us satisfaction for completing it and then encourages us to do it again. This positive loop of setting goals, feeling good about accomplishing goals and then setting new goals is another example of self growth and complexity. The more complex we become, the more interesting life becomes for us. We are less prone to feel defeated at the whims of bad luck or poor treatment. Instead, we find strength and courage in becoming an individual and feedbacking ourselves about our accomplishments. Of course we have to start with small goals and build up over time so that we aren't broken down at the very beginning.

Sense of control under stress

When we have internal feedback about our actions, and we feel mentally confident, that provides a sense of control, even under stress. Stress paralyzes our memory and brings the anxiety of not doing good enough. However, a flow state is achieved even under stress when we take control of our actions and do not blame outside circumstances. We may not actually have control, but the perception of control is more important. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning demonstrates this very well. Someone can be constrained to a concentration camp, but if they choose to have mental freedom nothing can take away their satisfaction. So nature can take away all our daily freedom, but our ability to create new freedom is still present. It requires skill and effort to come up with ways to enjoy mental freedom under stress. And the more we get used to setting ourselves free even when we have no control, the more flow states we are able to experience. So the impact of stress is outweighed completely when we focus more on the positive aspects of our existence. The ability to be grateful for the smallest things yields the greatest satisfaction. The most boring activity is not objectively boring until we subjectively judge it according to our preferences. The same activity becomes less boring, and even exhilarating when we take away the mental judgment and helpless perspective. In short, this attitude of being in control of my mind not only increases confidence, but also unifies our mental strength to perform a task better even when it becomes challenging.

No worries about passing time

Boredom and anxiety distort our perception of time and change our feelings in the present moment. When we are anxious, time goes really fast and we feel every small change in stimulus around us. We feel as if we don't have enough time to do what we are supposed to do because most of it is spent on worrying about the past or future. On the other hand, boredom slows down time to the point where we feel lethargic and tired. When we are bored, we have no agenda of regulating our attention powers, so our nervous system takes a back seat. But when we are in a flow state perception of time is much more balanced; we feel as if we have all the time we want to do the activity at hand yet we also do not recognize how time flies by. Because the task at hand requires unified concentration, time is not worth analyzing. So we hardly even look at our watches or wish that time went faster. Instead, we simply flow through time without ever asking ourselves how long it has been. Time is relative to the engagement of an individual's psychic energy on the given task. The more engaged an individual is, the greater the experience of time, hence higher satisfaction of the task.

Autotelic experience

An autotelic experience is one where we focus on the means of an activity rather than its ends. A classic phrase corresponding to this is Enjoy the ride. Most of our daily activities are cumbersome and annoying because we do them just for the sake of checking them off the list, or because we are forced to do them. But once in a while we engage in a flow state where the enjoyment comes not from finishing things, but from simply doing them. That is to say that each moment of the activity brings fresh happiness. Only few people in the world are lucky enough to actually enjoy their jobs and not dread their 9-5 work hours. People who work for making ends meet certainly do feel happy when they get the paycheck, but that only lasts for a while before they get annoyed by daily hassles. On the other hand, people who work for working, and see value in their work regardless of how much money they get find more happiness in general. They may not get as much money or fame, but they are satisfied because the work they do gives them consistent value in life. Meditation is one of the best activities that trains us to have more autotelic experiences. Meditation is done not to gain something, but to experience a peace of mind while meditating. Advanced meditators state that meditation allows them to see beauty in the most mundane activities of life because their mind is able to delay gratification. The monkey mind never gets satisfied even when we feed it what it desires, so we are constantly restless and dissatisfied. But as we meditate we learn how to be in the present and be okay with the reality as it is here and now. This allows us to smile at our challenges and enjoy the ride of life without getting upset about not getting all the things we would want.

Neuroscience of Flow States

Cognitive Neuroscience is still in its initial stages of bringing evidence for the flow theory. There are two major theories in current literature that support flow theory: 1. Transient hypofrontality by Arne Dietrich and 2. Synchronization theory of flow by Rene Weber. The first theory suggests that flow states require inhibition of frontal areas, mainly the explicit executive controls. The DMN, or default mode network and the CEN, central executive network are both mediated by the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe. The inhibition of these regions frees up cognitive energy, and fuels the basal ganglia, which provide more implicit processing. Inhibition of the frontal areas also reduces self referential thoughts which is an important factor in achieving intense concentration. The clear sense of direction and attention mainly comes from implicit guidance of neurons in the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia also have large amounts of dopamine and serotonin receptors, which provide motivation and enjoyment during the flow state. In general the first theory proposes that implicit processing leads to greater creativity as it allows information to be processing quickly without reference to self.

The other theory, on the contrary, suggests that frontal areas are crucial in attention and focus so they cannot be inhibited during flow. Though this theory suggests that frontal lobes need to be activated more during flow states, it also emphasizes the implicit processing from the basal ganglia. It promises that certain brain regions not associated with self referential thoughts may actually lead to greater control of attention and thus higher productivity. Implicit knowledge is often not stored in long term memory, so people may actually forget about their flow experiences once they are over. Though the memory is lost, the intrinsic reward circuitry is strengthened from the experience, and leads to overall contentment.

When it comes to electrical waves and EEG research, there is a strong consensus that flow states showcase a similar pattern to meditation. Both flow and meditation experiences have increased frontal alpha and theta frequencies. Alpha frequencies most correspond to relaxation during deep sleep while theta frequencies correspond to introspection and focus, which is common in flow states. The importance is the ratio of alpha to theta frequencies, which gives a sense of ease and control while experiencing flow. There is more research to be done to find the mechanism behind these neural theories, but the general claim is that our brain becomes more implicit and less reliant on external cues. The implicit learning provides greater focus as well as immediate feedback from the reward circuitry in basal ganglia and the striatum.

References: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551835/


There was a lot of theory of mind and happiness in this blog, so I am going to sum it up in this section. I highly recommend reading Flow by Mihaly C to get more practical examples of how these characteristics of flow state relate to different people.

  1. Most of our lives, our restless minds drive us from one activity to another, without ever taking a step back and reflecting on our progress. A flow state is one where we become concentrated on the present activity regardless of whether it is pleasant or not and start to see the connection between all things. This increases our gratitude and in turn makes us more happy.

  2. Most people want to feel comfortable, but a flow state can only be achieved when we challenge our skills and become complex individuals. The more we challenge ourselves, the better we feel about accomplishing our goals. There should be a clear balance between anxiety and boredom.

  3. Concentration is the single most important ingredient of unifying the mind. When we are concentrated, we spend less time worrying about self concept and more time on the activity. This increases the efficiency of that activity, therefore increasing the value of rewards and feedback.

  4. Intrinsic goals structure our psychic energy and avoid pitfalls of confusion and wasted efforts. Our intentions are matched with meaningful feedback that increases our concentration. We no longer have to keep thinking of the self, because it evolves on its own through feedback of achieving our goals. The combination of concentration and positive feedback leads to a confident sense of self.

  5. Taking control of our minds is difficult but it can be possible when we practice meditation and mindfulness. This sense of control also builds creativity and eventually leads to breaking through challenging barriers.

  6. Doing an activity for the sake of its progress often yields more happiness than doing an activity for the sake of its end reward. Even though an activity may be tedious and challenging, the progression can bring happiness. Similarly, even though an activity may bring tons of reward at the end, if the individual can't enjoy the smaller steps they are miserable for the most part.

  7. Neuroscience research suggests an increase in alpha and theta frequencies in frontal lobes during flow states. Alongside with this, there is more implicit processing and some evidence of reduced explicit processing from the prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, the default mode network activity is drastically reduced during flow. This may suggest an alternative network in the brain corresponding to enhanced focus and learning.