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Think of a moment in your life when you were so involved in what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to have disappeared. Your mind wasn’t wandering; you were totally focused and concentrated on that activity, to such an extent that you were not even aware of yourself. Time disappeared too. Only when you came out of the experience, did you realise how much time had actually passed (usually much more than you anticipated, although sometimes it could be less).
Most people can remember experiencing such a state. In fact, about 90% can easily recognise and associate it with one or more activities. Athletes call it ‘being in the zone’, others a ‘heightened state of consciousness’. Psychologists call these fully absorbing experiences flow states, which were discovered and named by a world-famous psychologist with the most unpronounceable surname I have ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His celebrated book Flow: The psychology of happiness is one of the best examples of a marriage between non-reductionist scientific and deep thinking, within the accessible self-help genre. It became an instant best-seller, making its way to the top self-help classics.
The state of flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.
If challenges exceed skills, one can become anxious. If skills exceed challenges, we usually become bored (like bright kids at school). Neither of these two cases will result in flow.