This is a topic I was asked to write about and is not something I've read about recently, so it'll all be from memory of the handful of books I read on the topic well over a year ago and a quick consultation with Wikipedia to jog my memory on a few aspects.
What Flow Is
Flow is essentially defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of peak performance. Csikszentmihalyi is the researcher who has coined the term and done the most studies on the phenomena over the years. This temporary state of peak performance typically occurs when the level of challenge in an activity is just right, meaning it is not so difficult as to be impossible, but not so easy as to be boring or unengaging.
The name came from a number of interviews done by Csikszentmihalyi where athletes and musicians commonly referred to their best performances as being "in the zone, on fire, or flowing". He interviewed surfers, rock climbers, musicians, chess players, and a host of other high end performers and they all said similar things when attempting to describe the state. Flow is what he settled on calling it.
Wikipedia has a nice summary of six factors included in flow from Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi (2001):
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience.
It's important to realize that this state is extremely beneficial to mental well being. It often leaves people feeling a sense of refreshment and revitalization. Entering flow regularly can be one factor in becoming a happier, more balanced individual.
From my own experiences with flow, I would say that numbers one through four above are the most important, with five and six being secondary. Some of these experiences will be explained next.
Personal Accounts of Flow
During any given week, I would say two activities are responsible for me entering flow on a highly predictable basis: weight lifting and reading.
Unless I am planning an easy day at the gym, I am almost guaranteed of a flow experience. This can be explained using seven conditions necessary for flow proposed by Schaffer (2013) :
Having discussed weight lifting in depth, I won't go over the same seven conditions step-by-step for reading. However, I will highlight the major differences. When weight lifting, the flow experience can go in and out. This is because during an exercise, the challenge and focus needed will be excruciatingly high as discussed in point seven just above, but between sets I can fall out of flow.
This back and forth does not often happen in reading and flow can be prolonged for a much longer continuous time frame. While I believe physical states of flow are stronger for me, such as weight lifting, running, difficult hiking, biking, or swimming, the mental act of reading does allow for all of the conditions to be met in certain cases.
For example, when I read a highly engaging textbook (oxymoron?) on a topic that I am deeply interested in, I will undoubtedly know what I am doing (learning), know how to do it (read), know how well I am doing it (understanding or not), have a high perceived challenge (full understanding of a graduate-level text), have high perceived skills (I am capable of reading, learning, understanding at the master's/doctoral level), and be free from distractions (alone in my room or alone in a sea of Starbucks customers and white noise). Again, all of these conditions come from the seven points above in the weight lifting section. Refer back to refresh your memory.
The last point on being free from distraction is often the most difficult part of finding flow with reading. The gym is easy. People generally leave you alone and headphones-in-ears is a clear "fuck off" signal to most people. However, reading is not the same. Many people assume that they have the right to interrupt a person who is reading and that it is easy for them to go right back to what they were doing. While this is the case for light reading, such as Facebook or many blogs, it is not the case at all for the type of reading necessary for finding flow. The difficulty level and amount of focus required to understand complex texts at the end of your ability makes being interrupted a much bigger deal. Interruption will knock you out of flow and it can take up to fifteen minutes to regain this state once being lost.
Complex fiction is also good flow, I don't mean to give the impression that non-fiction textbooks are the only way.
Other Flow Applications
For me personally, the two examples above are the most common departure points for finding flow. However, there are tons of other ways to dig in and experience the wonderful almost ecstasy inducing feeling.
Some have already been mentioned throughout this post and along with others include: surfing, mountain climbing, music, chess, sports of all kinds, writing, meditation and even sex. Nevertheless, there is one area where flow has been highly undervalued to date.
Education and the classroom.
The classroom should be, in my opinion (backed by research and a graduate degree), a place where teachers push students to find a feeling of flow in whatever subject they are responsible for. If children do discover flow states in a class, there are much higher odds that they will want to repeat the activity.
Flow in learning should come first, mandated curriculum should come second.
Now, I understand completely that most people cannot enter flow in an activity they are new at and that many classroom activities, exercises, or subjects are new. For instance, no one is likely to enter flow the first time they sit down to play the piano or attempt calculus. There are too many challenges and so that activity is often too difficult for their ability. Oftentimes, it takes gaining a certain level of competence before flow and a love for an activity can happen and develop. With that being said, I believe one hundred percent that teachers should seek to get their students into flow states during their classes as soon as possible and whenever possible.
This turned out to be longer than I planned. I hope you made it all the way through it. If you did, thanks for reading, if not, oh well. Finding activities that you value and allow for flow can be truly amazing. It has been for me. While most activities can potentially lead to flow and thus a state of well being and reward, not all activities are created equal in terms of their benefits.
Now that you (hopefully) understand what flow is and how to get it, I suggest you evaluate which activities can potentially lead to the most benefits for your life and invest heavily in trying to spend the most flow-time as you can in them.
If you don't know or understand how you could potentially enter flow in an activity you value and think would be benefit you from doing so, contact me and I will help you do so. The feeling of entering flow is rather addicting (in a good way) and something I would wish for everyone.
Nakamura, J.; Csikszentmihalyi, M. (20 December 2001). "Flow Theory and Research". In C. R. Snyder Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez. Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–206.ISBN 978-0-19-803094-2. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International