Why do some of us stick to, and enjoy, a sport or exercise program—or, for that matter, any type of activity—while others drop out? Personality, type of activity, environment, health, and many other factors play a role. So may the intense, pleasurable state some people experience during challenging activities.
This feeling of being totally focused, absorbed, and in control has been described and given various names over the centuries in different cultures. It can happen when you are running, painting, playing chess, making music, gardening, baking, or even working. Today it is often called “flow.”
Flow has received much attention since the term was coined in the early 1970s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, now a professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University. (Watch a TED talk by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi on flow, which he describes as "the secret to happiness".) Csikszentmihalyi came up with his concept while studying how artists create art and how deeply involved they are in their work. Since then, sports psychologists have studied flow in athletic endeavors. After flow is described to them, about 85 percent of people say they have experienced it, according to Csikszentmihalyi.
The name “flow” can be misleading. Flow is active. The task must involve some difficulty, stretching your physical or mental abilities. Spacing out in front of the TV is not flow. Achieving flow takes effort and concentration, although it feels effortless and relaxed.
Components of flow
- A balance between your skills and the endeavor. That is, the task must be challenging (to prevent boredom), but not too challenging (to avoid excessive anxiety or frustration).
- Being mindful and attentive, not zoned out on automatic pilot.
- Feeling at one with your action. Rowers, for instance, may say that the oar feels like an extension of their arm. Basketball players may feel that the arc of the ball toward the hoop is an extension of their mind.
- A sense of control and confidence. You know you have the skills, but there still is a challenge.
- Having clear goals and knowing what to do to meet them. You don’t simply throw yourself into the great unknown. You use skills you understand.
- Having clear feedback—for instance, from your body (seen in a mirror perhaps), a clock, teammates, or a trainer.
- Heightened but relaxed concentration on the task.
- An altered sense of time. In flow, athletes (or painters, dancers, or gardeners) say that time seems to slow down or speed up greatly.
- A sense of euphoria and joy.
Bottom line: No one can experience flow in all endeavors and, indeed, striving for flow can be counterproductive. Instead, you achieve flow by focusing on your activity. Experiment with activities and challenge levels to find what works for you. While flow can't be taught, you can learn to recognize it—and once you do, flow and the desire to achieve it may help motivate you and may increase the pleasures and rewards of your activities.
Also see Movement and Your Mind.