Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Find the Sweet Spot Of Blissful Challenge

The flow state of utter absorption comes from a balance of goal-seeking and ease

For me, it happens when I’m doing yoga, dancing or writing. I feel vibrantly alive and content, satisfied that I’m being my best self.

I’m in the “flow,” a term coined more than 20 years ago by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Athletes use the phrase being in "the zone."

Gordon Lawrence, author of “Finding the Zone: A Whole New Way to Maximize Mental Potential,” traces flow states to the natural curiosity of babies, who become completely absorbed and delighted when exploring. Adults, like babies, are stimulated by novelty, but you’re most likely to experience flow as an adult when engaged in a skill in which you already have some mastery.

With flow, even though you’re “in the zone,” you’re not just “zoning out.” You’re relaxed, but also alert and active. If meditation is your go-to flow-inducing activity, for example, you are still actively keeping yourself from mentally wandering off or falling asleep, usually by focusing on your breath.

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Many people experience flow most easily when they’re moving, such as during a run or when they’re swimming. Repetitive activities, such as knitting, can also help you go with the flow—and relax. (Some research suggests that repetitive movement may help increase serotonin, the mood-boosting brain chemical.)

According to Csikszentmihalyi, you are most likely to feel “in the flow” when you pursue clear goals that are challenging but within reach. You’ve found the sweet spot between boredom and frustration. As you go about the activity, you enter a feedback loop that gives you the information you need to get closer to your goal. You lose track of time and awareness of your own body and may even forget to eat or stay up into the wee hours of the night.

A flow state is special, moments that come to most of us only once in a while. But you can have them more often by stretching yourself and mastering skills that use your personal strengths.

Yvonne, 43, remembers feeling flow while practicing gymnastics at 12 years old. “I was by far the pudgiest girl on the gymnastics team and the least naturally talented, but I took classes and practiced every day,” she recalls. Her stepfather even made a gymnastics mat out of old scraps of foam so she could train at home. “I worked out on the homemade mat for hours upon hours until it was dark, not finishing until I got that side aerial and the back semi nailed,” says Yvonne. “Having a goal that stretches you, but is also doable—that is exhilarating. Nothing mattered except me and the acrobatics I was dead-set on doing.”

We emerge not only happier, but also with a stronger sense of identity. When Yvonne needs strength today, she recalls the determination she had at age 12 on that homemade gymnastics mat.

 Flow isn’t only found in physical activities and favorite pastimes. Some people are lucky enough to get into the zone at work, making them more likely to both perform well and feel satisfied. Rebecca, 34, loves teaching 3rd and 4th graders, especially when she tries new lesson plans that capture her—and her kids’—attention. When Rebecca is “in flow,” she says, the kids respond with more energy and enthusiasm. “At the end of the school day, I’m exhilarated,” she says.

 A class of vibrant kids is a clear example of the feedback that aids flow. Think of it like feeding off of each other’s energy. Sometimes, however, the feedback is more subtle. Steve, 62, a composer, says that his feedback comes from the notations he’s making. He sees how his notes “turn into music,” on a day when things are flowing well.

"Most of us don’t have luxury of finding jobs and activities that exactly match our strengths,” says University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, Ph.D. The answer, he says, is to look for ways to bring your strengths—traits such as kindness or creativity—into your day.

Another strategy: If you’ve got a list of dull tasks to do, get creative by making up challenges for yourself that can help you get in the zone. For example, if you’re a blogger, limit the number of words in a post and see how creative you can get or dive into an engrossing topic you’ve never written about before. If you’re a chef—whether at a restaurant or for a hungry family—set out to create a dish without any butter or oil or with vegetables you’ve never tried before.

The key to experiencing flow is to choose a goal that’s both meaningful to you—and within reach.

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Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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