State of Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Posted on June 28th, 2012

The Flow experience is a vivid example of intrinsic motivation. The state of flow can be described as a sense of seemingly effortless and intrinsically joyful movement you experience when you are engaged in an interesting activity for its own sake rather than for external purpose.

The state of Flow involves total absorption in a task, and creating a state of consciousness where optimal levels of functioning often occur. In his original description of the Flow state, Csikszentmihalyi described Flow as an end in itself, something that is to be enjoyed and appreciated. The state of Flow is an autotelic experience, which is a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the activity itself is the reward 1.

Csikszentmihalyi’s short description of Flow 2 “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The nine defining characteristics of the Flow experience are 3 :

  1. Balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.

  2. Merging of action and awareness (sense of automaticity and spontaneity).

  3. Goals that are clearly defined.

  4. Clear, unambiguous, and immediate feedback.

  5. Total concentration on the skill being performed. The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, the Alexander Technique, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow.

  6. Sense of being in control without trying to be in control (paradox of control).

  7. Loss of self-awareness (becoming one with the activity).

  8. Loss of time awareness. Time distortion experience.

  9. Autotelic experience (end result of all of the above).

Factors that facilitate the occurrence of Flow state:

  • Development of a positive mental attitude.
  • Positive precompetitive affect.
  • Positive competitive affect (during contest).
  • Maintaining appropriate attentional focus.
  • Physical readiness (perception of being prepared).
  • Unity with teammates(s) and/or coach.

Factors that prevent the occurrence of Flow state:

  • Experiencing physical problems and mistakes.
  • Inability to maintain appropriate attentional focus.
  • Negative mental attitude.
  • Lack of audience response.


  1. Cox, R. H. (2007). Sport psychology: concepts and applications (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill. 

  2. Geirland, John (1996). “Go With The Flow”. Wired magazine, September, Issue 4.09. 

  3. Wikipedia - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

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