Go with the flow: The science of optimal experience

One of the most amazing and most fulfilling experiences one can have is being in the “flow” or having an optimal experience. This concept was suggested and thoroughly investigated by a Hungarian psychologist M. Csikzentmihalyi. Being in the flow means that a person is fully immersed in an individual activity (e.g. creating music, writing, dancing, reading), or in a social activity, a board game, chess, or by participating in a stimulating conversation with our friends. Flow experience has been reported across various cultures, and it has been described in the same way, regardless of person’s age, gender, social status, etc. The most crucial characteristic of flow activities is reported experience of enjoyment while performing. In the same time, a person can act effortlessly, without worrying about everyday problems and frustrations. Sense of time is changed, it seems that the time simply flies while experiencing the flow. In addition, the flow experience is followed by a sense of control over performance and this eliminates worry that we might underperform or make a mistake.

Although, creative individuals and experts can enter optimal experiences much easier than other people might, there are certain characteristics of flow activities that can be managed in order to facilitate flow in everyday life.

1) In order to achieve an optimal experience it is necessary that the level of the task difficulty is neither too high or too low depending on the person’s skill level.


If the task is too difficult, then we might become anxious and stressed out. On the other hand, if the task is too easy, one might get bored quite quickly. A flow activity demands a certain skill level which needs to be acquired in order to be successful in it.

2) Flow activities demand high attention resources, with no or just minimal attention left for other stimuli. This might be the reason why people experience that sense of self disappears, as well.

3) The task has to be structured with clear goals and feedback. Having a clear, positive feedback while working, provides us with a signal that we are on the right track which energizes further efforts.

Optimal experiences are autotelic (Greek, “auto” self, and “telos” meaning), in other words, they are self-rewarding and self-contained. This intrinsic motivation for the activity itself and the following enjoyment is provided by the sense of achievement and control over its development. In order to initialize a flow experience, one has to invest some effort, but once when the activity starts to provide a positive feedback it becomes self-rewarding.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what kind activity you prefer as long as you have mastered its rules, and you fully engage your attention in it. If you do this, your efforts will be immensely rewarded with providing you with: “… a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushes the person to higher levels of performance, and leads to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transforms the self by making it more complex. In this growth of self lies the key to flow activities.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-016253-5.