The Neuroscience of the Flow State


Stop me if this sounds familiar: Some days you get to work and everything seems to drag on and on and on. There’s nothing you can do. But other days, you move on from task to task to task, crushing everything you stumble across. There’s nothing you can’t do.

In the first scenario, all you can think about is heading home for the day, calling it a wash, and trying your luck tomorrow. In the second scenario—the Flow State—you can’t really think about much because you are “in the zone,” so to speak.

When someone enters the Flow State, the sense of self diminishes. We become extremely focused, performing the task at hand to our utmost abilities—and we thoroughly enjoy what we’re doing.

The History of Flow

In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posited that we have the most meaningful experiences of our lives when we voluntarily invest our energies in difficult tasks that are worthwhile. True genuine satisfaction is only possible during the Flow State, which Csikszentmihalyi described as a “state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Further, he concluded, it is possible to build happiness into our lives by choosing to invest our energies in complex yet rewarding endeavors.

Beyond that, Csikszentmihalyi believes, like many others, that money alone cannot buy our happiness. He described the link between happiness and flow in a 2004 TED talk.

The Science of Flow

As you might imagine, there’s a lot happening in our brains when we enter the flow zone. Our bodies release a ton of chemicals, including norepinephrine, which helps us concentrate; dopamine, which makes us alert; endorphin, which makes us feel good; serotonin, which balances our moods; and anandamide, which makes us happy.

Our brainwaves also change when we’re in the Flow State; our minds are driven by alpha and theta waves, which are traditionally associated with REM sleep and deep sleep, respectively. This is not necessarily that surprising, though, because when you’re in the zone—when you’re dominating everything you touch—it almost feels like it isn’t real life.

The Effects of Flow

According to research by McKinsey, executives that achieve flow are five times more effective. So the leader who’s in the Flow State is just as good as five executives who are either going through the motions or just not committed to the task at hand.

Quite simply, flow allows us to achieve levels of success we’re unable to otherwise achieve. Take a look at this example: In a recent study from Australia, 40 individuals were given a tricky brain teaser. None of them could solve it. Researchers then artificially induced via transcranial electromagnetic stimulation, 23 of those folks were able to figure out the puzzle—in record time, to boot.

How to Achieve Flow

For Csikszentmihalyi, achieving flow requires a delicate balance of a number of ingredients:

  1. We need to set clear goals for ourselves. The baseball player might focus on hitting a home run while the programmer has a certain amount of code she wishes to write in a given session.
  2. Our goals have to be immediately measurable. The ballplayer’s success is measured by the roar of the crowd while the coder’s is measured by volume and quality.
  3. Flow is the result of balancing skill and challenges. The best baseball players get hits 30% of the time. When anyone who doesn’t know how to code reads it, it looks like gibberish. Ballplayers and programmers have skills a majority of the population lacks. Still, their jobs aren’t easy.
  4. To achieve flow, the world must narrow—allowing us to direct all of our energies on the task at hand. Think about how the ballplayer seemingly ignores tens of thousands of screaming fans or how the programmer’s able to ignore the distractions of the internet to crank out line after line.
  5. Of course, you don’t want to fail. But in order to reach the Flow State, failure is the furthest thing from your mind. This is how people deliver in clutch situations.
  6. Both self-consciousness and the sense of time disappear from the equation in the Flow State. You are in the right place at the right time performing the exact task you need to perform.

When Steph Curry drains three after three after three, he’s not thinking intensely in depth about every facet of each shot. He becomes one with the ball, the court and the rim—almost like he’s on autopilot. Of course, he’s in the Flow State (it seems like he’s been there perpetually for the last few years).

Imagine what you could do at your job if you got there?

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