Emotional Health

Finding Your Zone: The Experience of Flow

Think of a time when you got “lost” in your work by making something or pursuing a creative project or hobby. The time goes by effortlessly as you became absorbed in what you were doing. Your concentration and effort were acute, but were not experienced as painful because you were so focused on what you were doing.

This is what is referred to as “flow.” First identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who began his extensive studies in the late 1960s, it is also known as “being in the zone,” and understanding it has given us insight into what happens when athletes, artists, chess players, rock climbers, etc., feel the exhilaration of being completely absorbed in the pursuit of something difficult.

Csikszentmihalyi noticed that artists, for example, often kept working past the time when hunger and even exhaustion set in, and the motivation was the work itself — it felt so good they didn’t want to stop. He found that others practicing a singular skill followed the same pattern. Eventually, he identified eight ingredients essential to finding flow, or getting in the zone.

  1. Challenging yourself.
  2. Having clear goals.
  3. Being totally absorbed in what you’re doing.
  4. Feeling your thoughts and actions are in sync.
  5. Distractions disappear as attention remains effortlessly with the task at hand.
  6. You feel totally in control, without self-consciousness or worries.
  7. Sense of time alters, seeming faster or slower.
  8. There is a sense of reward.

The last ingredient, perhaps the most important, is what Csikszentmihalyi calls an “autotelic experience,” which comes during but sometimes is experienced after leaving the zone. This feeling has been compared to the “runner’s high” some people experience during or after a run.

Another psychologist, Gabriele Wulf, of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says three key factors lead to optimal performance like this.  First, Wulf says, a person needs to focus externally on the task without distraction of self-evaluation. A second, factor is confidence. Wulf says that you must be “expecting good things to happen.” The third essential is autonomy, according to Wulf.  You feel that you are doing what you are doing because you want to. Choosing itself is empowering.

Wulf has discovered that confidence is increased when you believe a talent is learnable rather than innate. Afterward, you focus on progress, satisfaction, and achievement. “Positive feedback is absolutely critical,” says Wulf, “Negative motivation does not work.”

Imaging studies of optimal performers reveal distinct regions of the brain becoming linked, a phenomenon known as functional connectivity.

When you are in the zone the explicit learning system — responsible for conscious, sophisticated thinking and verbalizing, quiets down. In flow, “you do not analyze what you’re doing,” according to Arne Dietrich, a neuroscientist at the American University of Beirut. He believes flow is enhanced by reducing brain activity. “The very essence is that you’re not thinking,” says Dietrich. During flow, the implicit learning system, which is responsible for quick, efficient and automatic responses, is in control.

When in the zone, you have a sense of control even though you are not experiencing an effort at staying on course.  Psychologist Genevieve Cseh and her team at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland studied visual artists, and found that a creative high that comes with “flow requires a very clear sense of how we’re doing at all times,” and that preliminary sketches often increased it by helping create a clear roadmap for their work.

The more you practice, the better, according to Csikszentmihalyi and others. He emphasizes the need to transcend both boredom and anxiety by finding new challenges in our chosen work and by improving our skills.  “More expertise makes it easier to obtain flow,” says Örjan de Manzano, a postdoctoral researcher at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

These pathways can be forged early. Exposing children to many activities helps them to be motivated to pursue something they enjoy and those that are forced to specialize too early may miss out. When they discover that learning something they like feels effortless and fun, they are inspired to pursue it further. Flow begets flow, in other words.

Researcher Wulf, says “More than anything,” being in the zone “is enjoyable.” Csikszentmihalyi believes the flow state is crucially important. “When you are in flow, you are really living,” he says. It may also have, unsurprisingly, health benefits. Last year, a group of researchers from the Karolinska Institute found that zone-prone people were less likely to feel depressed or burned out from work compared to others in a twin study. “Flow experience,” says lead author Miriam Mosing, “may indeed be somewhat protective from mental health problems.”

Our ability to achieve flow may an evolutionary development that helps promote learning and mastery. Psychologists believe that “Flow evolved as a reward signal to promote long-term skill acquisition.” And though flow is often studied in the context of leisurely pursuits, many lucky people find they experience it during work hours as well. Having a job that entails tasks you get absorbed in, that provide an opportunity for challenge and exercise of your innate skills, can be one of life’s great rewards.

Scientists, for example, are often motivated by intrinsic curiosity and approach their tasks as if they are solving a fascinating puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle is a small, sometimes painstaking task, yet the work absorbing, even fresh and exciting. And work does not have to be glamorous to put you in the zone. As you gain expertise at your job the tasks themselves can become intrinsically rewarding. This is especially true if you feel your work is personally meaningful.

How can you spend more time in the zone? The first step is identifying what pursuits interest you in an absorbing, self-fulfilling way. This can be something popular, like knitting, something complex, or even something eccentric. My friend Winnie spends long hours creating mobiles out of tropical fish she makes out of paper mache and then paints. They are beautiful, but more importantly, she loves doing this. Another friend started making sculptures out of bones as a way of coping with the death of her mother, and this has unexpectedly become a second career.

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