After a qualifying race leading up to the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, the famed Formula One driver Ayrton Senna said he realized he was driving his car for much of the race “by a kind of instinct.” Similarly, LA Laker great Kobe Bryant has said that when he’s playing his best, “things just happen.” Time stands still. It’s “effortless.”
These sentiments paint the classic picture found in sports of being in “the zone.” An ethereal, mystical intersection of extreme focus and motivation, “the zone” is a mental state where surrounding noises simply fade away. The zone is a tunnel. It’s unconscious. And it’s where performance most easily emerges from excellence. It’s also, as psychologists have been learning for decades, perhaps the purest form of internal reward a human being can find.
The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-muh-hy-ee) has been researching the concept of “the zone” since the 1950s. He calls it “flow.” Through his research, he’s found that flow isn’t limited to the arena of sports. Authors, painters, sculptors, and surgeons are all capable of entering a state of flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, these behaviors make for a sense of fulfillment that far exceeds any external reward, such as money or acclaim. It is the sensation of being enraptured, immersed, mesmerized, even, that produces such happiness.
“We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, warm sunshine, or the contentment of a serene relationship, but this kind of happiness is dependent on favorable external circumstances,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.”
Slipping into a state of flow, where behaviors happen seemingly through no conscious action or intent, comes with several criteria. First, not everyone can necessarily achieve a state of flow at all times. In 1997, Csikszentmihalyi devised a way of thinking about a state of flow that put it at the nexus of high-skill and high-challenge. Other states, such as boredom (mid-skill, low-challenge) and worry (low-skill, mid-challenge) fall somewhere around flow, depending on their levels of challenge and skill. The activity must somehow find both of the two to achieve a state of flow.
But perhaps the two most important ingredients for flow are motivation and ability in the person. If you can’t paint worth a lick, no amount of motivation will let you abandon conscious effort, because you just aren’t good enough. Conversely, a world-class author won’t produce anything of value if she has no desire to even sit at the computer, let alone write. The more you have of both, the easier reaching flow becomes. It also helps, Csikszentmihalyi points out, to have a personality well-suited for flow. Ideally you’ll be curious, persistent, avoid self-centeredness, and enjoy intrinsic reward. Collectively, these traits are known as “autotelic personality.”
But for those who don’t possess great creative skill or the desire to do things for their own sake (Hey, no one’s saying a little something for the effort wouldn’t be nice), the experience of flow may still be within reach. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, the mundane tasks we perform at work or in our everyday lives may hold potential for flow.
Rather than cut corners, he says, flow can be found in the sense of accomplishment. The inert act of painting a portrait, which contributes nothing externally, has a sense of accomplishment built in. The same may be possible for the average grocery store clerk, simply by asking several questions: Is this step necessary? Can it be done better, faster, more efficiently? What additional steps could make my contribution more valuable?
“When approached without too many cultural prejudices and with a determination to make it personally meaningful, even the most mundane job can produce flow,” he argues.
Unless you’ve dedicated your life to the arts, you’ll probably find yourself in the second camp Csikszentmihalyi describes: Flow isn’t embedded in your life as much as you must incorporate it by choice. For this, there are a number of obstacles people naturally face. Csikszentmihalyi advocates mindfulness.
“Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn, become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art,” he says. Think of these tasks, which we’d normally write off as chores, as meaningful activities that actually deserve to be appreciated. Find the art in them. And as Csikszentmihalyi clarifies, it wouldn’t hurt if these activities ultimately harnessed the power of flow for good.
“Teenagers arrested for vandalism or robbery often have no other motivation than the excitement they experience stealing a car or breaking into a house,” he writes. “Thus, it is not enough to strive for enjoyable goals, but one must also choose goals that will reduce the sum total of entropy in the world.”