Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that time has flown by at a surprising rate? Or had a game where your performance felt seamless, like your body knew just what to do at just the right time? If so, it is likely that you have experienced “flow”. In sport it is often called being “in the zone” or “in the clutch”. While it is often discussed in relation to sport, it is experienced in multiple other domains as well such as business (Ie. “work flow”), performing arts, and writing. Flow is an enjoyable state where one feels in control of their performance and is fully immersed in the activity.
I first became interested in flow about 15 years ago when I started running. Of course, I didn’t call it that back then, I called it a “runner’s high”. Its that intense, euphoric feeling one gets for a short duration of time mid-run. You only need to experience that runner’s high one time to get hooked. When my running distances increased the amount of times I could experience a runner’s high during a run increased. I found during a marathon I could experience three runner’s highs and I could approximate the mileage that these could occur at. Like any good scientist, I couldn’t leave it well enough alone, I wanted to understand why I experienced these highs and how to induce them. I began by talking to other runners about it. I was surprised to find that some runners had never experienced it and, in fact, didn’t even believe in it (gasp!). When I told this to some of my endurance runner friends, they laughed and said “Why else would we run so much?”. Of course, running by itself is enjoyable. Your brain clears, your mind lets go of the daily planning and worry, and several feel-good neurotransmitters lead to you experiencing an increase in your mood and energy. That is enough to keep you running short distances, but running over 20 miles? I, for one, need more than a little workout boost to motivate me to do that.
In his pursuit to find the meaning of life and happiness, Csikszentmihalyi (1975) interviewed multiple people that were involved in many different types of activities and that had experienced this state. He coined the term “flow” to describe this state as he equated it to flowing water, where the action is smooth and seems effortless. After analyzing and synthesizing the interviews, Csikszentmihalyi outlined nine dimensions associated with the flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).
- Challenge-skills balance
- Merging of action and awareness
- Clear goals
- Unambiguous feedback
- Concentration on the task at hand
- Sense of control
- Loss of self-consciousness
- Transformation of time
- Autotelic experience
These dimensions were then used to create a measurable, testable definition of flow termed by some as the Jackson-Marsh model of flow (Jackson & Marsh, 1996). It is this model of flow that has remained the primary model of flow since it was introduced. A review of the research articles on flow revealed that there was disagreement on what neural areas were involved in flow (Alameda, et al., 2022). Seemingly rigorous studies using similar methods were finding different results. The problem was the way flow was being defined and, consequently, measured.
In most of the research conducted on flow the level of flow the participant is experiencing is measured using scales that are based upon these nine dimensions (ie. Flow State Scale, Jackson & Marsh, 1996), self-report, or is simply assumed if the challenge of the task seems to match the skill of the participant (for review see, Alameda, et al., 2022). Recent reviews of flow have called for a new definition of the flow construct, one where the challenge-skills balance, clear goals, and unambiguous feedback are considered antecedents to flow rather than part of the flow experience (Norsworthy, et al., 2021, Swann, et al., 2018) and two of the dimensions, that of time transformation and loss of self-consciousness, are not necessarily a part of the flow experience.
Thus, out of these recent reviews a new definition of flow is emerging. As defined in the beginning of this essay, flow is the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity and in control of one’s own performance. It is enjoyable and may lead to increased performance and, as such, is much sought after. In order to enter into flow one must be focused on the task, have a clear understanding of the goal of the task, and receive ongoing unambiguous feedback. Transformation of time and loss of self-consciousness may be experienced, but only if these dimensions are not relevant to the task. For example, basketball players will not lose track of time when the clock is ticking down and dancers will not lose their self-consciousness when performing for a crowd of spectators as these dimensions are relevant to their performance.
So why did I write this? Why take an entire blog to write about how flow is being revised? There are two take home messages here:
- Remember how in your research methods class you were taught what an operational definition is and what construct validity is? How we drilled these terms into you early on as part of the base of understanding research? The case of flow is a wonderful example of why this is important and what happens when construct validity is violated. Having multiple researchers test the same construct and come to different conclusions is a big red flag that the definition of the construct needs to be reviewed and revised.
- Now you are on the cutting edge of understanding what flow is! There is a lot of misunderstanding on what flow is despite the fact that it has become a hot topic in a variety of performance domains. You can now be that cool person that corrects the common misconception.
Perhaps even more exciting is this sets the stage for the next blog in this 3-part series: How can we increase the likelihood that we will experience flow? I will tell all in the next blog post!