In the Zone: Calm, Focused Energy, Happiness, and Creativity

Help your child experience flow and all its benefits.

Posted Oct 04, 2019

The Naked Ape via Flickr
Source: The Naked Ape via Flickr

For decades, creatively productive people across the sciences, arts, sports, and humanities have been talking and writing about an experience called “flow,” or being “in the zone.” They describe total absorption in an activity, a feeling of energized focus, concentrated involvement, and loss of a sense of time.

Those who experience it almost always want more, sometimes describing it as a euphoric drug that motivates deeper and ever-deepening engagement in the activity that prompted the sensation of flow in the first place. Flow has been described as an optimal experience associated with happiness, fulfillment, and serenity. It connects back to Eastern religions, including Buddhism, and can be seen as a state of mind that both results from engaging in creativity and enhances creative possibility.

The term “flow” was coined in 1975 by psychologist and creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who became fascinated by the fact that so many of the artists he was interviewing described losing track of time when they were engaged in their work. Since then, flow has been intensively investigated, and researchers have drawn some conclusions about three conditions necessary for a flow experience:

1. An Activity With Clearly Defined Goals

You can enter a flow state while involved in almost anything, but it is most likely to happen when you are actively and wholeheartedly performing a task, not passively enjoying something like watching a movie or taking a bath. Those who experience flow have concrete, short-term plans concerning the activity they’re involved in, as well as reasonable long-term aspirations.

For an athlete, this can mean working on a certain basketball shot and hoping to join an elite team. For a writer, the short-term goal might be writing a short story to submit to a contest, and the long-term hope might be to become a published author. For a mathematician, it could be mastering elementary astrophysics, and the long-term aspiration could be becoming a physics professor. Although the flow activity is intrinsically motivated, the goals add direction and structure to the task.

2. Clear and Immediate Feedback

To achieve a state of flow, you need evidence that you are mastering your short-term goals, as well as supportive redirection when you’re going off track. This can include prizes, praise, or other kinds of commendation when you’ve earned that, as well as constructive criticism that helps you get better. In other circumstances, direct, immediate feedback is built into the activity. If you’re designing video game software, for example, you know if you’re doing it right, because it works, whereas if you make a mistake, it doesn’t.

Writing is where I most easily enter a flow state. I’ve done much of my non-fiction writing with one or more colleagues, where there is a constant back-and-forth dialogue that helps each of us clarify what we’re trying to say. When I’m writing with a partner, I know I’m writing not only for the audience I eventually want to reach but also for the more immediately discerning eye of a trusted colleague.

3. Perception of Abilities Matches Perception of the Challenge

If you think something is too difficult or too easy, you probably won’t attempt it. If you do attempt it and find it too challenging for your skill level, you’ll become frustrated. If you find it too easy, you’ll be bored. To feel a sense of flow, the task must be hard enough that it feels challenging and easy enough that it feels doable. You have to feel confident that, with effort, you can complete the task at hand, and that the effort will be worth your while.

This third requirement for a sense of flow echoes the work of another psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who wrote about what he called the zone of proximal development. This is the zone in which learning happens most efficiently and successfully and leads to creativity. Where the level of challenge matches your ability, you are working toward mastery, expertise, and creativity.

How You Can Encourage the Benefits of Flow for Your Child

1. Pay attention to your child’s interests and enthusiasms. Talk with them about how they might take those interests and enthusiasms further. Help them define realistic goals, both short-term and long-term, in those areas of interest.

2. Help them find tasks that further those goals, and that match their ability level. If you think they are over-confident in their perception of their current ability, or if you think they are more competent than they realize, help them test their perception. With a more realistic understanding of their abilities, they can work on tasks that will challenge them fully.

3. Ensure your child is getting immediate and constructive feedback. The most flow-conducive tasks allow your child to see how they are progressing, but if that isn’t possible given their interests and goals, think about how your child can get the supportive and critical feedback they need.  

One child I know loves playing baseball. Theo’s short-term goals are to refine his aim both in hitting and pitching; his longer-term goal is to make a select team that travels around the province to tournaments. His parents have created a place in their backyard where Theo can go out and practice hitting or pitching into a large net, so the ball isn’t constantly going over a fence or into a window. Theo can see where the ball is landing, and ascertain whether he’s getting more accurate, and decide when it’s time to move back and make the task more difficult.

I love watching him out in the backyard all by himself, working hard to improve his skills. He’s fully immersed in the activity, and when he comes back inside, he is glowing, feeling good about himself, as well as wanting to show his dad or mom or anyone else who’s there what he has just gotten better at. His goals are tough enough to be challenging, and also easy enough to be doable, and he’s getting the feedback he needs, as he needs it.

In supporting Theo in experiencing a sense of flow, his parents are giving him a priceless gift. He now looks for that full immersion in other activities that interest him—mathematics, science, basketball, and Minecraft—focusing his abundant energy and intelligence as he develops competence, and experiences the creative fulfillment that leads to achievement, happiness, and self-confidence.

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