We’ve all heard of flow states but what exactly is “flow” anyway? Some athletes and performers call it “being in the zone” or “runner’s high”; and musicians say they feel a sense of “being one with the music”. These peak experiences are also described as “the power of flow” because flow is a state of mind that helps you to feel amazing and perform your best when it matters the most. Flow can also be understood as a “high performance mind” where creativity surges and risk-taking goes up because the brain moves into an optimized state where we can use the full 100% of our brain’s capacity. Best of all, our nagging “inner critic” goes away so we are free to soar!
Three Facts You Need to Know About Flow
First, Flow causes a powerful and positive intrinsic motivation by releasing a cascade of feel-good performance enhancing neurochemicals throughout the body. These highly addictive chemicals augment the creative process, and enhance our ability to link ideas and process complex information streams. Second, Flow short cuts our path to mastering our goal in half, and can accelerate our performance up to 500%. And third, people who experience flow often in their lives tend to be the happiest people on earth.
So How Do You Experience a Flow State?
How we experience a “flow state”, or get “into a zone” depends on what we’re doing, who we’re with, and also what stage of life we’re in. Everyone can enjoy flow states as long as certain conditions are met. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihali did the seminal research on flow and identified the core components of a flow state. There are different experiences of flow as well “micro-flow” where a few components are present; and macro-flow where many of the components show up all at once. Here’s the list:
- Clear Goals – one’s goals are attainable and alignment exists with a high skill set and challenge level
- Concentration – a high degree of concentration on a specific field of attention
- Absence of self-consciousness allows a merging of action and awareness
- Distorted sense of time exists in flow where time slows down or speeds up
- Direct and immediate feedback – where successes and failures are immediately apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed
- Balance between ability level and challenge – the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult
- Control – a sense of personal control over the situation
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding so the action feels effortless
- A lack of awareness of bodily needs exists in the flow state
- Absorption – flow involves a narrowing of awareness down to the activity alone.
Flow and the Optimized Brain
In flow parts of the brain shut down and the pre-frontal part of the brain turns on and moves us into a state of higher consciousness. Time slows and seems to allow past and present to merge and we are escorted into an altered reality that scientists call the “deep now”. The neurochemical changes in our brains are known as “transient hypofrontality”, which underlies every alternative state, such as dreaming and meditation. Flow research is finally on strong neurobiological footing, and this knowledge allows us to achieve these states of virtuosity and move into the zone where our egos suspend and we transcend ourselves into an amazing state of flow.
So if it’s true that people who experience flow often are the happiest people on earth – go find your flow and become one with your universe.
Excerpted from Steven Kotler’s article “Flow States: Answers to Questions About Optimal Performance” in Forbes Magazine 2/9/14. Visit his website, the Flow Genome Project
“Hack Your Flow: Understanding Flow Cycles” with Steven Kotler