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The Concept of "Flow"

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Flow is one of eight mental states that can happen during the learning process which Csíkszentmihályi outlines in his flow theory

In addition to flow, these mental states include anxiety, apathy, arousal, boredom, control, relaxation, and worry; they result when a learner experiences a combination of skill and challenge levels of a task in non-optimal combinations. Flow is the most optimal of these states for learning, as it is where skill level and challenge level of a task are at their highest. This creates an opportunity for learning and intense focus, where learners can even feel that they lose track of time because they are so immersed in the task.

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Csikszentmihalyi is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, who has been studying human enjoyment since 1963. The question he posed himself was simple: What is fun? What makes some experiences enjoyable, and other experiences not? It is a surprisingly deep question, considering all the varieties of fun. Some people enjoy painting, others rock climbing. Some consider parenting one of life’s most stimulating activities; others are galvanized by the corporate whirl. Some enjoy whittling, others hiking. Are there any common threads that tie these experiences together? As it turns out, there indeed are. When Csikszentmihalyi interviewed all the kinds of people listed above, he discovered a common thread to their stories. The following is taken from his book The Evolving Self, pages xii-xiv, and is hopefully brief enough to be readable yet long enough to explain the key idea. Csikszentmihalyi is describing some of the painters he interviewed: When a painting was beginning to get interesting they could not tear themselves away from it; they forgot hunger, social obligations, time, and fatigue so that they could keep moving it along. But this fascination lasted only as long as a picture remained unfinished; once it stopped changing and growing, the artist usually leaned it against a wall and turned his or her attention to the next blank canvas. It seemed clear that what was so enthralling about painting was not the anticipation of a beautiful picture, but the process of painting itself. At first this seemed strange, because psychological theories usually assume that we are motivated either by the need to eliminate an unpleasant condition like hunger or fear, or by the expectation of some future reward such as money, status, or prestige. The idea that a person could work around the clock for days on end, for no better reason than to keep on working, lacked credibility. But if one stops to reflect, this behavior is not as unusual as it may seem at first. Artists are not the only ones who spend time and effort on an activity that has few rewards outside itself. In fact, everyone devotes large chunks of time doing things that are inexplicable unless we assume that the doing is enjoyed for its own sake. Children spend much of their lives playing. Adults also play games like poker or chess, participate in sports, grow gardens, learn to play the guitar, read novels, go to parties, walk through woods–and do thousands of other things–for no good reason except that the activities are fun. Of course, there is always the possibility that one will also get rich and famous by doing these things. The artist may get a lucky break and sell her canvas to a museum. The guitarist may learn to play so well that someone will offer him a recording contract. We may justify doing sports to stay healthy, and go to parties because of possible business contacts or sexual adventures

External goals are often present in the background, but they are seldom the main reason why we engage in such activities. The main reason for playing the guitar is that it is enjoyable, and so is talking with people at a party. Not everyone likes to play the guitar or go to parties, but those who spend time on them usually do so because the quality of experience while involved in these activities is intrinsically rewarding. In short, some things are just fun to do.

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It’s important to note that a single flow experience doesn’t automatically lead to other flow experiences, but for someone who has a clearly defined goal it can. If the goal is challenging enough and other goals flow from it, then it’s more likely that the person will have more flow experiences in various areas of her life. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls this a “unified flow experience.” This means that the person is devoting all of her energy to acquiring the skills necessary to achieve the larger goal. This puts her thoughts, feelings, and actions into harmony. Everything she does fits into her larger goal whether it’s in the present moment or upon review of past events, actions, and experiences.Research began being published in sports journals in 1992. Through repeated empirical studies, an association between flow and peak performance, especially among elite athletes, has been found. The psychological benefits of flow include “enhanced well-being and self-concept” (Swann, 2016). There’s a plethora of research in sports

In the section titled, “Flow State in Sports Psychology” you’ll discover a few more examples. The Flow Research Collective is an interdisciplinary, global approach to tackling questions related to flow and peak performance in a variety of settings including businesses and schools. The focus of some of their research is the potential connection of flow triggers to other positive psychology hot topics like mindsets, grit, and creativity, particularly in educational settings. They designed a flow profile quiz to help people discover their own flow profile. It takes about three minutes to complete, you’ll be asked to give them feedback regarding training you’d like to see their organization offer, and then provide your email address before seeing your results. You’ll also receive emails introducing you to more ways to get into and stay in flow. You’ll also have access to free videos and podcast episodes covering topics such as hacking the flow state, ultimate human performance, how flow drives creativity, and the dark side of flow. If you’re interested in more in-depth information, they offer a self-paced paid course called Flow Fundamentals.

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As can be seen, just like in educational settings, engaging in a challenging athletic activity that is doable but presents a slight stretching of one's abilities is a good way to achieve flow

Sometimes described by being "in the zone," reaching this state of flow allows an athlete to experience a loss of self-consciousness and a sense of complete mastery of the performance. Flow can also occur when workers are engaged in tasks where they are able to focus entirely on the project at hand. For example, a writer might experience this while working on a novel or a graphic designer might achieve flow while working on a website illustration.

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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row. Retrieved January 20, 2019

Spencer, J. (2017, Dec. 3). What is flow theory? What does it mean for our students? Retrieved January 9, 2019, from https://youtu.be/iUsOCR1KKms

Swann, C. (2016). Flow in sport. In L. Harmat, F. Orsted. Andersen, F. Ullen, J. Wright & G. Sadlo (Eds.), Flow Experience: Empirical Research and Applications (pp. 51–64). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Ulrich, M., Keller, J., Hoenig, K., Waller, C., & Gron, G. (2013). Neural correlates of experimental induced flow experiences. NeuroImage, 86, 194–202 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.08.019

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