Flow- the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task- is a strong contributor to creativity. When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness, and one’s mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating. There is very little self-awareness or critical self-judgement; just intrinsic joy for the task. Since flow is so essential to creativity and well-being across many slices of life- from sports to music to physics to religion to spirituality to sex- it’s important that we learn more about the characteristics associated with flow so that we may all learn how to tap into this precious mental resource.
But who enters flow? What are these lucky folks like? Recent research shows that people differ quite a bit from each other in the frequency and intensity of their flow experiences. These differences aren’t just found in Western cultures. In a study conducted on Japanese students, those who reported experiencing flow more often in their daily lives engaged in more daily activities, and were more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem, Jujitsu-kan (a sense of fulfillment), life satisfaction, better coping strategies, and lower anxiety.
In a hot-off-the-press paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“) and his colleagues in Sweden set out to investigate the associations between flow proneness, intelligence, and the major dimensions of personality. Across two samples of participants with a wide age range, they found some intriguing associations with flow. “Proneness to experience flow” was measured by having participants report how frequently they have flow experiences during three slices of life: work, maintenance (i.e., household chores), and leisure time. They then looked at relations with personality and cognitive ability.
Neurotic participants experienced less flow across multiple domains in their daily lives. The researchers offer some possible mechanisms that could account for this association. One possibility is that the negative emotions that come with high neuroticism interfere with the state of joy that occurs when in a flow state. Another possibility is that the fluctuations in emotion that come with neuroticism can also affect both the cognitive and emotional aspects of flow, causing a disruption in flow. A third possibility is that neuroticism impacts on flow indirectly, through the life choices those high in neuroticism make on a moment-to-moment basis. Research has shown that those high in neuroticism tend to have less motivation to become involved in activities and experience a greater sense of futility in engaging fully in life.
The researchers also found an association between flow and conscientiousness. Those who were more dutiful and persevering also tended to report higher levels of flow in their daily lives. This association is probably due to the fact that conscientiousness is positively related to other variables that are also associated with flow, such as social problem solving, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, positive affect, and intrinsic motivation. Conscientious individuals are also more likely to spend the time practicing to master challenging tasks, conditions which make flow more likely. As the researchers note, “It seems likely that high conscientiousness involves emotional and motivational mechanisms that make an individual engage in flow promoting activities“.
The researchers didn’t find significant relation with other factors of personality, which I found surprising. I expected them to find an association with Openness to Experience, as prior studies have found that link. Perhaps a reason for the lack of association is that their Openness measure had quite a few items relating to a preference for intectual engagement. Indeed, there was only a very weak association between flow proneness and performance on an actual measure of intelligence, which required participants to find patterns. At first blush, it would seem as though intelligence would be related to flow. After all, intelligence is related to the ability to control attention.
But as the researchers note, the mental state of flow differs markedly from the mental state involved in solving problems on an IQ test. In a prior study in Sweden led by Örjan de Manzano (who was a co-author of the study with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi), the researchers asked professional pianists to play a musical piece five times and rate their level of flow each time. The respiratory patterns and emotion-related activity of the facial muscles found in those entering flow more frequently suggested that they were experiencing an emotional state of enjoyment and a lack of mental effort. Contrast this with taking an IQ test, where it’s difficult to bring your expertise to bear on the task. Instead, flow seems most likely to occur when a person engages in a task with a moderate level of challenge that is well matched in difficulty to a person’s current skill level. Flow also shares some commonalities with the mental states of high concentration seen during meditation, which also seems to be a form of concentration unihibited by our critical facilities when one is fully immersed in the moment. The researchers sum it up: “Flow may thus be a state of subjectively effortless attention that occurs during skilled performance and has different underlying mechanisms from attention during mental effort“.
I’m excited to see that this is an active area of research. The finding that flow is more strongly related to personality than cognitive ability is fascinating and hopeful. Minor tweeks in your personality might make it more likely you will enter flow. The changes are well worth it.
© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman.