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It is easy to enter flow in games such as chess, tennis, or poker, because they have goals and rules that make it possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how. For the duration of the game the player lives in a self-contained universe where everything is black and white.
The same clarity of goals is present if you perform a religious ritual, play a musical piece, weave a rug, write a computer program, climb a mountain, or perform surgery. In contrast to normal life, these “flow activities” allow a person to focus on goals that are clear and compatible, and provide immediate feedback.
Flow also happens when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges. If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.
How often do people experience flow?
If you ask a sample of typical Americans, “Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter and you lose track of time?” roughly one in five will say that this happens to them as much as several times a day, whereas about 15 percent will say that this never happens to them. These frequencies seem to be quite stable and universal. For instance, in a recent survey of 6,469 Germans, the same question was answered in the following way: Often, 23 percent; Sometimes, 40 percent; Rarely, 25 percent; Never or Don’t Know, 12 percent.
A more precise way to study flow is the Experience Sampling Method, or ESM, which I developed at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s. This method provides a virtual filmstrip of a person’s daily activities and experiences. At the signal of a pager or watch, which goes off at random times within each two-hour segment of the day, a person writes down in a booklet where she is, what she is doing, what she is thinking about, and whom she is with, then she rates her state of consciousness on various numerical scales. At our Chicago laboratory, we have collected over the years a total of 70,000 pages from about 2,300 respondents. Investigators in other parts of the world have more than tripled these figures.
The ESM has found that flow generally occurs when a person is doing his or her favorite activity–gardening, listening to music, bowling, cooking a good meal. It also occurs when driving, talking to friends, and surprisingly often at work. Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.
Almost any activity can produce flow provided the relevant elements are present, so it is possible to improve the quality of life by making sure that the conditions of flow are a constant part of everyday life.