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Engeser (1) defines flow as the mental state of operation during which an individual is fully absorbed in activity without having reflective self-consciousness, yet having a sound sense of control. He notes that people are mostly happy they are in a state of flow. According to him, flow is an optimal state when the individual involved completely concentrates on the activity at hand and forgets about any other matter around him/her. In a state of flow, individuals enjoy intrinsic motivation. Such situations are characterized by the feelings of fulfillment, engagement, absorption as well as skills. This research paper examines the concept of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The paper defines the concept of flow and focuses on the range of research that has been conducted concerning the concept. It also identifies potential directions of the future research.

During an interview with Wired Magazine, Csikszentmihalyi explains that while somebody is in a state of flow, involvement is set apart for the sake of the activity alone. He describes flow as a completely focused motivation. The person’s ego falls away and time flies. At that time, every thought, movement, or action experience an inevitable flow from the previous one in a manner similar to playing jazz. He explains that in a state of flow one’s whole being is involved as the individual fully engages his/her skills (Ong & Dulmen 543).

Flow, Optimal Experience and Development.While studying the creative process in the 1960s, Csikszentmihalyi observed that when the work of painting was in progress, the artist would single-mindedly persist in the work despite hunger, fatigue, and any discomfort. However, not long after finishing the product, all interest in the product is normally lost. The research and theory of the flow originated from the desire to have an understanding of the phenomenon of being intrinsically motivated and of the “autotelic” activity, i.e. an activity that is rewarding of itself despite the extrinsic rewards that might be accrued as a result of the performance. Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre referred to flow as an “optimal experience” in the sense that it referred to the psychological state when an individual feels efficient and motivated as well as happy (Engeser 6).

In order to investigate the nature and conditions of enjoyment, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed dancers, chess players, and rock climbers among others. Most respondents cited enjoyment as the reason behind their pursuit of the activity. Csikszentmihalyi notes that in order to enter the state of flow, some conditions must be met. At first, these are the perceived challenges that stretch, yet they do not surpass the existing skills of the performer. It implies that the performer must strike a balance between his skills and the challenge of the performed task (Mathwick & Rigdon 324). In addition to matching the level of skills and the level of challenges, it is necessary that both are high in order to attain the state of flow. Otherwise, in case the level of challenge matches the level of skills, yet both are low, the state that results is referred to as apathy.

In addition, to achieve a state of flow, an individual must have clear goals and immediate feedback about the progress should be obtained. It gives a clear direction as well as a structure to the task. Subject to these conditions, experience inevitably unfolds from one moment to another as one enters the state characterized by deep concentration at a given moment and merging of actions together with awareness. There is loss of reflective self-consciousness, yet there is a sense that the individual can deal with the situation at hand by responding to whatever happens next. The state is also characterized by moments of flow as the individual’s mind typically ignores temporal concerns such as self-ego, time, and even food. The person is fully immersed in what is on progress. Moreover, the experience of the performance is intrinsically rewarding in such a way that achievement of the goal is the only excuse for the process (Lopez & Snyder 195).

Flow State Model.Being in the state of flow, an individual operates at full capacity and the state is a typical example of dynamic equilibrium. Therefore, entering flow requires establishing a balance between the perceived action capacities and the presented challenges. The balance is quite fragile. If the challenges exceed the skills, the individual first become vigilant and then anxious. Similarly, if the skills surpass the challenges, the person quickly relaxes and eventually becomes bored. A visual representation of the concept of flow shows experience as a function and a ratio of perceived challenges against skills as illustrated in the original model of the flow state (Lopez & Snyder 196).

Source:Lopez, Shane, & Charles Snyder. Oxford handbook of positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Since the flow experience is mainly shaped by the interaction between the individual and the environment, it entails emergent motivation in an open system. What happens at any time is a response to the occurrence of the previous moment rather than is a product of the intentional move of the individual in response to the surrounding environment. The development is quite systematic. Flow activities such as sports and games provide structures for the feedback that ensures the occurrence of flow. However, a person involved in the performance may lose flow in the result of distractions and excessive challenges (Lopez & Snyder 196).

Autotelic Personality.Over time, the theory and research of the flow have concentrated on the phenomenology rather than on the personality. However, individuals differ in frequency and intensity of the experienced flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, autotelic individuals have several specific personality traits and are better placed in terms of their ability to achieve the state of flow as they do it more often as opposed to an average individual. Such personality traits show low self-centeredness, persistence, and curiosity as well as the high rate of the activity performance due to specific intrinsic reasons (Lopez & Snyder 197).

Measurement of Flow.Lopez and Snyder (197) note that the researchers have come up with various ways of measuring both intra-individual and inter-individual variations in the flow experiences. Modern scientists have made efforts to measure the autotelic personality. The methods that are currently in use to measure flow include interviews, experience sampling method, and paper-and-pencil measures among others.

Interview and Questionnaire.The flow concept emerged as a result of the qualitative accounts of how people feel while an activity is progressing well. A semi-structured interview reveals a clear account of the flow experience in the real life context. Interview continues to be the most preferred approach in the explanatory research and studies. The questionnaire method, also known as the paper-to-pencil means, has been employed extensively when the objective is not to identify, but to ascertain the direction taken by the flow experience. The method also reveals variations that occur among different individuals. The questionnaires are designed in such a way that respondents need to provide information whether they have experienced flow, how often it has happened, and during which particular activities it has been (Lopez & Snyder 198).

Experience Sampling Method (ESM).Interviews and questionnaires solely rely on the retrospective reconstruction of the respondents’ past experience. Thus, respondents have to average across several experiences, to compose a clear picture of how things have been progressing, and to give their estimation. In the sampling method, the participants are required to carry paging devices that signal them to fill in the questionnaire at programmed times describing the very moment they were paged. Through this, multiple random samples are obtained from the daily actual experience. Therefore, ESM is focused on the very moment when conditions of flow occur based on the balance between skills and challenges as well as on the reported flow state (Ryan 133)

Objective Measurement and Laboratory Manipulation.Though the experience sample method yields a corpus of moments in flow, in case of collecting large numbers of experience samples, the flow of experience is interrupted. Objective measurement has been used to measure the flow in a population whose capacity is limited and may not be able to report exactly what their inner feeling is. This method is also important for the identification of the flow markers without causing interruptions as in ESM. It can be used in situations like the observation of the flow among children enjoying music. On the other hand, laboratory manipulation is also aimed at studying the dynamics of the flow. It has been used as a result of theoretical tracking or controlling key experimental conditions of activities such as online games and learning situations. The method has so far elicited self-reports of the flow (Lopez & Snyder 199).

Recent Directions in Flow Research.In the recent past, the flow concept has been used by researchers to study the optimal experience in leisure, art, intrinsic motivation, sports, and plays among others. The concept has also been used by practitioners who address contexts in which positive experience is deemed useful, particularly in formal schoolings at varied levels (Lopez & Snyder 196). In addition, impact of the flow concept has grown beyond academia to fields such as popular culture and business as well as professional skills. Some of the recent directions are discussed below.

Consequences of Flow.The recent research has shown that experiencing flow encourages an individual to continue the performance and to return to the activity since it promises experimental rewards. It enables the individual to gain more skills with time. Success in high school is linked to the consequences of flow. Experience sampling methods conducted in high schools among students indicate that there is a strong relationship between persistence and the quality of experience. For instance, talented students who have experienced flow in the first test in mathematics are more likely to perform better in the second test. The flow in the first test motivates them to work harder in the anticipation of a better reward in the second mathematics test (Lopez & Snyder 199).

The Nature and Dynamics of Flow.It has been possible to trace a distinct strand of research from the original studies that have been conducted on the flow activities. In this line, interviews have produced domain-specific descriptions of the deep flow in various activities. Research of the flow dynamics are conducted in such domains as the computer and Web usage, sports and games, and education as well as work (Lopez & Snyder 199).

Flow at School.Interest in conducting research on the flow in the school context is on the increase. Recently, studies have been done in different types of schools. The experience sampling method study done in middle schools showed that in comparison with students attending traditional institutions, Montessori students experienced more flow in their academics and were more motivated. In the same study, efforts directed on the classroom activities revealed that the corporate learning provided more flow compared to listening to lecturers. Another study done in a math class showed that students were more motivated and that while in the flow teachers negotiated understanding, encouraged autonomy, and intrinsic motivation as compared to situations when teachers were highly directive, evaluative, and employing extrinsic controls (Furlong 139).

Flow at Work.Several studies have been conducted to address work experience among teachers. Recently, the British research has revealed that primary and secondary teachers often experience flow and the flow may be more intense as compared to other workers in several other professions. The research of teachers has also revealed the antecedents of flow. Factors such as self-efficacy, availability of teaching resources, couching by supervisors, and social support among others motivate them to experience flow. In the context of work, the research done on the German and Swiss saw workers has revealed that the flow is higher at their work stations while happiness and satisfaction are experienced more in the leisure time (Lopez & Snyder 201).

Directions for Future Research of Flow.Several research areas directed towards the flow theory and the research of the phenomenon as well as its applications in the same field are most likely to be successfully carried out in the future. In addition, new research directions identified by Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura still remain promising. Equally, others areas of concern are just emerging. An example of an emerging concern is the experimentation concerning the neuropsychology of the flow. In addition, current changes of the societal values have raised several questions concerning the flow. For example, there are basic questions about the kind of attention that creates flow and the manner the optimal flow is achieved. The ever dynamic pace of life and advancing effects of the technology, challenges of multi-tasking, and increase in the “attention robbers” highlight the significance of regulating attention and the impact that it has on the quality of experience. These few pertinent issues only show that there is still much to focus on concerning the flow theory (Ryan 137).


In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that the state of flow also means the state of displaying focused attention. Other than being able to contain and channel emotions, these emotions must be positive and energized as well as aligned with the performed task. The research of flow is critical as it tries to unfold conditions that act as obstacles and facilitators of the optimal experience. It mostly focuses on essential institutions such as schools, families, and work places. However, its main contribution towards a good quality of life comprises the complementary momentary experience to the value of life.

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