Discovering Blissful Focus: Get into the Flow State
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Discovering Blissful Focus: Get into the Flow State


Have you ever been to libraries and seen people there fully focused on studying? Or have you seen artists engrossed in creating, without paying attention to anything or anyone other than themselves and their work? This state is what positive psychologists call flow. Flow refers to a state of mind wherein a person becomes fully immersed in the activity that they are engaged in. Their state of focus is so intense that they lose track of time, their own needs, and anything outside the task at hand. They find the experience so enjoyable that they will continue to engage in it even at great cost, just for the sake of doing it.

Other characteristics of flow include –

  • The individual feels a sense of peace and calm.
  • There is a balance between skill and challenge presented.
  • The activity at hand is intrinsically rewarding to the individual.
  • The individual receives clear feedback on the task, almost immediately.
  • The individual sets clear, attainable goals that have an element of challenge to them.
  • The individual experiences feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.

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Benefits of Flow

Being in a state of flow can provide numerous benefits some of which include emotional regulation, increased intrinsic motivation, fulfilment, happiness, satisfaction, and increased chances of self-actualization. Individuals who experience flow also show enhanced performance, productivity, and engagement. The challenges involved in flow also provide opportunities for learning, skill development, and creativity.

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Neurobiological explanation of flow

The transient hypofrontality hypothesis explains it as associated with a decrease in the activity of the prefrontal cortex. This explains why people experience timelessness and loss of self-consciousness. Further, the inhibition of the prefrontal lobe may also enable the implicit mind to take over and facilitate easy communication among more brain areas, helping in the creative process. This is supported by the synchronization theory. Additionally, a possible increase in the activity of the frontal cortex can explain increased higher thinking.

It is also associated with increased dopamine, which explains why people engaging in the flow state find it so enjoyable that they would choose to continue to engage in it, even at great cost. The involvement of the Locus Coeruleus-Norepinephrine system (LC-NE) explains the inverted U-shaped association of flow and arousal. For the flow state to occur, the individual needs to be in an optimal state of arousal. There should also be a balance between the challenge of the task and the level of skill of the individual engaging in it.

This way, when an individual works on a task that is engaging but not frustrating, it helps their brain relax unusually. This type of effortful focus engages the brain’s central executive network (CEN). Interestingly, during the flow state, the Default Mode Network (DMN) takes over. This is the same part of the brain that is active while daydreaming. This might explain why creativity surges in the flow state. Nevertheless, more research is needed to provide strong neurobiological evidence for flow.

Personality and flow

Individuals with autotelic personalities are more likely to experience flow. These people are highly motivated to do things for their own sake based on their intrinsic motivation, instead of chasing external rewards or goals. They also show meta-skills such as a high interest in life, persistence, and low self-centeredness. Further, research investigating the correlation between the Big Five personality traits and flow experiences has shown a negative correlation between neuroticism and flow and a positive correlation between flow and conscientiousness.

This could be possible because individuals high on neuroticism are more prone to self-criticism and anxiety, which could disrupt flow. On the contrary, individuals high on conscientiousness are more likely to engage in and master challenging tasks, which is a key piece to experiencing flow. However, not having certain personality traits does not mean that achieving a flow state is impossible. With some effort and commitment, anyone can achieve flow. Here are some strategies that will help you experience flow.

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Strategies to experience flow

  1. Create a pre-flow ritual: Pre-flow rituals can act as a cue to engage and initiate flow experiences. Your pre-flow ritual can include switching off your mobile, shutting out distractions, meditating, getting a beverage, or anything of your choice.
  2. Get to know yourself: You need to know which activities you prefer to engage in. Choosing to do a boring or frustrating activity and expecting to experience flow is not smart. However, you can still choose activities that you like, but are not skilled at and learn the skills for it.
  3. Do it together: This might sound counterintuitive, but one study shows that students enjoyed it better when they were in a team and were able to talk to one another. This was also supported strongly when the team members’ skill levels and challenges of the tasks were equal.
  4. Take care of yourself: Sometimes, being in a flow state for extensive periods might make you forego food, rest, and other basic needs and make you sedentary. While this might make you look productive in the beginning, this is detrimental in the long run. Investing in self-care and resting enough is equally important!
  5. Eliminate distractions: Please switch off your phone and remove any cues that you think would disrupt your flow state. This would allow you to experience a flow state faster and reduce disruptions. You can also benefit by working during the time you are usually more productive compared to other times in the day (or night, if you’re a night owl).
  6. Add an element of challenge: The element of challenge is necessary to experience flow. However, it is important to ensure that it is at an optimal level. Nevertheless, if the challenge is too low, you can get to flow by increasing it. And if the challenge is too high, you can return to flow by learning new skills, advises Csikszentmihalyi.
  7. Set clear goals: In either case, if you do not set clear goals and know your outcome, you will feel clueless throughout the process. Flow state is characterized by having a finite outcome in mind. Make sure you also receive unambiguous feedback, because who wants to engage in an activity that does not tell them anything about their performance?

In conclusion, you can also experience flow and enjoy its benefits, provided you put in the right effort and are committed to your practice. However, you must also note that the experience of flow differs from person to person. So, be patient, go easy on yourself, and enjoy the process more than the result!

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References +
  • Cherry, K. (2023, March 28). How to achieve a state of flow. Verywell Mind.
  • Cooks-Campbell, A. (2022, March 7). Achieving a flow state: 7 ways to get in the zone.
  • Davis, T. (2023, January 31). 4 Science-based ways to get into flow. Psychology Today.
  • Nash, J. (2023, December 26). 6 Flow activities & training: How to achieve a flow
  • Oppland, M. (2023, September 14). 8 traits of flow according to Mihaly
  • Van Der Linden, D., Tops, M., & Bakker, A. B. (2021). The neuroscience of the flow state: involvement of the locus coeruleus norepinephrine system. Frontiers in Psychology,12.

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