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Flow

A Healthy Escape from the Daily Grind

4 ways to find flow and press pause on stress.

Key points

  • Flow isn't simply a fairweather, peak performance skill. It's one that offers respite in the darkest times.
  • Flow won’t overhaul external circumstances, but fMRI studies show it changes brain activity, offering temporary escape from the inner critic.
  • Although flow is characterized by a feeling of “effortlessness,” it takes some effort and preparation to set yourself up for success.
  • Some tips for finding flow include thinking back to flow experiences in childhood and increasing the challenge of daily activities.

When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was 10 years old, he understood more about loss than any child should.

It was 1944, and he was at a Prisoner of War camp in Italy. His two older brothers – his “idols” – were gone. One was shot down by Russian armies in Budapest, the other sent to a labor camp in Serbia. Numerous other relatives died in the war – his grandparents, aunts, uncles.

Doing what kids tend to do, in the best times and the worst times, he found a way to play.

He started playing chess. As he did, he experienced an insight that would influence Western psychology, especially positive psychology, decades later.

“[When playing chess, it] didn’t bother me that bombs were exploding,” he later shared. “It was one of the first times I realized you could get taken up in something to the point where everyday life problems disappeared, at least temporarily.”

Fast forward to present day, Csikszentmihalyi is one of the most influential happiness researchers and one of the most influential psychologists in the world, most renowned for his research on flow.

Flow as a healthy escape

While the vast majority of people reading this are not navigating happiness from any kind of literal prison, many feel stuck and restricted in at least one aspect of their life – burnout at work, a marriage on the rocks, pandemic fatigue, inner turmoil, or something else.

Though experiencing flow, that experience of being in the groove or in the zone, won’t overhaul your external circumstances, it can re-acquaint you with a joy that transcends the day-to-day.

Your brain on flow

Charles Limb & Allen Braun, 2008
Musicians in flow experience de-activation in the pre-frontal cortex, which may enhance creativity and reduce the inner critic
Source: Charles Limb & Allen Braun, 2008

In 2008, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun did an fMRI study looking at the brains of jazz musicians. What they found was that, when improvising, musicians showed a marked decrease of activity in their prefrontal cortex (see image). In this state of musical play, the part of the brain that is also associated with self-monitoring, and thus the inner critic, quieted down.

A vacation shifts your external state and may allow for greater relaxation. A flow state more directly shifts your internal setting. In flow, you experience an altered state of mind in which the day-to-day problems, at least for a period of time, disappear.

Unlike getting altered through alcohol or other substances, or zoning out to Netflix (which definitely has its place!), periodic experiences of flow enhance overall productivity, protect us from the ill-effects of stress, and uplevel creativity – even when the flow state is over.

4 ways to find flow in your life

Although flow is characterized by a feeling of “effortlessness,” it takes some effort and preparation to set yourself up for success. I aligned the following tips in the acronym “FLOW” for easier recall.

1. Find: Children so naturally seem to find their way into flow through art, make-believe, or even just running in circles! Adults not so much. One great way to get in touch with the activities most likely to engender flow is to think about where you experienced flow in the past, even if you have to go back to when you were a kid. Examples: Physical activity, dance, creating protected space just to be with a friend

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi flow graph
We find flow when we strike the right balance of skill and challenge
Source: Dr. Csikszentmihalyi flow graph

2. Level-up: Flow occurs when the level of challenge is just above your level of skill, especially in activities where your skill level has a relatively high starting point (see image). Csikszentmihalyi gives some great examples of how to find flow in everyday activities you’re doing anyway. Examples: 1) I write often for work, so perhaps I decide to “level-up” the challenge by timing myself. 2) Sandra follows the same morning routine each day, so she decides to “level-up” by trying to shave off two minutes. In both these examples, the act of timing encourages the single focus to part of the flow experience.

3. On the books: One of the preconditions for flow is eliminating distraction. If I’m doing one of my favorite flow activities, trail running, but I leave my text message alerts on, you can imagine my flow will be interrupted. On the books means creating flow zones of protected time for single-focus activities, whether in work or leisure.

4. Wisdom: Finding flow as an adult sometimes requires wisdom, as you may need to press pause on busyness, and intentionally prioritize an opportunity to immerse. Sadly, such an act can go against the grain in modern life. Even more so, you won’t hit flow every single time. So you must repeatedly set yourself up for success. Flow isn’t like being funny — when it comes to flow, trying actually works! The more you set yourself up for success, the more often you will experience flow. And thus begins the virtuous cycle because flow begets more flow.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

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