Flow: Challenge and Skills Effect on Mental State

Challenge Skill Mental State


Flow is the heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play, work, or sport. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) describes flow as the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

Arousal is the area in which most people learn. From this state, flow can be achieved by developing higher skills, as can be seen in the above diagram. To enter flow from the control state, you must increase the challenge. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004)

An athlete can achieve flow by engaging in a challenging athletic activity that is achievable, but presents a slight stretching of the athlete's abilities. Athletes appear to be in a state of flow when they achieve peak performance, however, the athlete may be in a flow state and not necessarily experience peak performance.

Csikszentmihalyi (1991) identifies conditions of flow:

  • Challenges equal skill level
  • Clear goals
  • Knowledge what to do
  • Deep concentration
  • Sense of being in control
  • Loss of a sense of time
  • Activity becomes autotelic
    • having purpose within itself

Csikszentmihalyi (2004) identifies additional experiences during flow

  • Confidence goals can be achieved
  • Inner clarity
  • Sense of ecstasy
  • Sense of serenity

The average mind can process no more than 110 bits/second. Experience of time, bodily sensations (ie hunger or fatigue), other extraneous distractions, and even personal identity are temporarily suspended from consciousness during periods of intense concentration. Csikszentmihalyi (2004) explains this intense focus of attention with the limited processing capacity of mind is why people report these feelings of existence are temporarily suspended during the state of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi M (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, Harper & Row, pg 4.

Csikszentmihalyi M (1991). Talent and enjoyment: findings from a longitudinal study. Keynote address at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, Aavannah, GA.

Csikszentmihalyi M (1997). Finding Flow. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, New York, NY.

Csikszentmihalyi M (Feb 2004). Presentation at Ted Talks, Monterey California.

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