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Have you ever been “in the zone?”

A state where you are so caught up in what you are doing that time just slips by? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies this state of optimal attention and immersion and calls it “flow.”

What is flow?

Flow can occur in just about any activity—with “active” being the important condition. Flow rarely happens when we are at rest or passive. This is why many of our opportunities to experience flow come when we’re working. People who are active with some of their leisure time also experience flow in their hobbies and other activities. Flow can happen when you are gardening, golfing, cooking, fishing, reading, listening to music, bowling, dancing…any activity that you can practice at your own cutting edge of mastery and challenge. It rarely happens when people are watching television or just “hanging out.”

Nine elements that together create the conditions for flow (identified by Csikszentmihalyi):

  • Clear goals every step of the way—you know exactly what to do next
  • Immediate feedback—when you’re in flow, you can tell how well you’re doing
  • Balance between challenge and skill—the task is not so easy that you get bored, but you have enough mastery to be engaged and successful
  • Action and awareness merge—you’re concentrating completely on what you’re doing
  • Distractions fade away—you’re so absorbed in the activity that you’re not aware of other things
  • There is no worry of failure—you’re too involved to worry about failing; you know what to do and just do it
  • Self-consciousness disappears—you’re not thinking about yourself or protecting your ego because you’re too wrapped up in the task at hand
  • Time flies—you may look up after being in a state of flow surprised at how much time has gone by
  • The activity is meaningful for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end

Researchers are finding that spending time actively in ways that can produce flow is good for our well-being. In one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies, he tracked teenagers who spent a lot of time watching television and hanging out at the mall—“low-flow” teens—and “high-flow” teens who spent most of their time on hobbies, sports and homework. The high-flow teens did better on every measure of well-being—things like self-esteem and engagement—except for one. They thought they were having less fun than the low-flow teens. And yet these were the teens who were developing capacity and opportunities for themselves that would be more likely to lead to lifelong well-being.

This is consistent with what researchers find in adults, too. It takes some effort to engage in activities, even hobbies that we enjoy. It can be easier to watch television, even though studies show that the average mood while watching television is mild depression and apathy.

Easy pleasures vs. gratifications
Psychologist Martin Seligman makes a distinction between “easy pleasures” and “gratifications.” Pursuing gratification engages our strengths and talents, requires some effort and thinking, becomes more pleasant the more we engage (as opposed to easy pleasures, which we quickly take for granted), and the positive effects last longer. And while getting enough rest, including some time to just “veg out,” is important to a balanced life, one way to get on the upward spiral of happiness is to spend more time on gratifications and in a state of flow.

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Authentic Happiness, by Martin E. P. Seligman

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