Psychological Flow: Finding Your Zen State
Have you ever been so completely absorbed in what you’re doing, whether it be drawing, playing basketball, or writing in a journal, that by the time you look up, a few hours have slipped by without you noticing? You’ve been so entranced in the task at hand that you haven’t had thought anything other than what’s immediately in front of you and the solidness and sureness of it. The state that you entered of using every ounce of brain power you have to exercising some infinitely enjoyable skill is called flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, came up with the concept of flow in 1990. He believes that “the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times….the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (1990). Csikszentmihalyi dubbed this feeling of complete freedom and creativity flow because of the way that experts in their area of expertise described their experiences.
Csikszentmihalyi believes that activities must fall somewhere on the graph above. The graph implies that to reach a state of flow one must strike a balance between the challenge of the activity and their own skill set. Exceptionally challenging activities may cause anxiety because of the level of difficulty, and lack of challenge may result in boredom. Where an activity falls on the scale can be changed through practicing the skill, therefore improving it, or increasing the challenge of the task.
Striking this balance seems like quite the dilemma, but the outcome is entirely worth it. The freeing feeling of doing something you’re passionate about goes unmatched. For me, the activity that gives me the feeling of flow is writing in my bullet journal/planner (as dorky as that sounds). With my collection of colored pens and notebook in front of me, I could spend hours recounting and recording my best memories without noticing time slip by. Changing up my planning routine helps me not get too bored—as I improve my handwriting, I switch up the layouts of my pages to incorporate more fonts.
No matter what your flow activity is, it’s essential to dedicate time to it. That experience is what gives you a release from the other stressors of college life. Losing yourself, even for a moment, on a short run or while baking a cake, can eliminate residual or unnecessary stress from the past week and allow for a fresh start moving forward. That time is valuable self-care. This aspect of positive psychology is extremely applicable to college students because we are the ones who most desperately need to find a balance between relaxation and productivity. A state of flow allows us to reach that peak of extreme productivity through activities unique to each person. The ability to put oneself in such a state will lead to a less stressful and more fulfilling college experience.
If you’re interested in learning more about flow, watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.