New years often come with new resolutions. Get back in shape. Read more. Make more time for friends and family. My list of resolutions might not look quite the same as yours, but each of our resolutions represents a plan for something new, or at least a little bit different. As you craft your 2022 resolutions, I hope that you will add one that is also on my list: feel more flow.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research on flow started in the 1970s. He has called it the “secret to happiness.” Flow is a state of “optimal experience” that each of us can incorporate into our everyday lives. One characterized by immense joy that makes a life worth living.
In the years since, researchers have gained a vast store of knowledge about what it is like to be in flow and how experiencing it is important for our overall mental health and well-being. In short, we are completely absorbed in a highly rewarding activity – and not in our inner monologues – when we feel flow.
I am an assistant professor of communication and cognitive science, and I have been studying flow for the last 10 years. My research lab investigates what is happening in our brains when people experience flow. Our goal is to better understand how the experience happens and to make it easier for people to feel flow and its benefits.
What it is like to be in flow?
People often say flow is like “being in the zone.” Psychologists Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi describe it as something more. When people feel flow, they are in a state of intense concentration. Their thoughts are focused on an experience rather than on themselves. They lose a sense of time and feel as if there is a merging of their actions and their awareness. That they have control over the situation. That the experience is not physically or mentally taxing.
Most importantly, flow is what researchers call an autotelic experience. Autotelic derives from two Greek words: autos (self) and telos (end or goal). Autotelic experiences are things that are worth doing in and of themselves. Researchers sometimes call these intrinsically rewarding experiences. Flow experiences are intrinsically rewarding.