Flow – The Psychology Of Optimal Experience

Flow – The Psychology Of Optimal Experience

A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background says Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Pronunciation: Me high, cheeks sent me high,) an 85-year-old Hungarian-American psychologist who has spent his life to bring order in chaos, in the psyche of the people.

Mihalyi C. was born in Fiume, a city in Croatia now known as Rijeka. Mihalyi lost both of his elder half-brothers while he was still young during the end of world war II. He lost one brother during the siege of Budapest by the Red Army of USSR, and the second was sent off to the Siberian camps by the Soviets never to return. Later on when the Communists took over Hungary in 1949, Mihalyi’s father resigned from the post of Hungarian ambassador to Italy in revolt; the regime responded by stripping him and the family of their Hungarian citizenship, forcing him to open a restaurant in Rome to earn a living. Young Mihalyi dropped out of school to help his dad.

Seeing the agony, despair, helplessness and the grief that arose in Mihalyi’s own life and in the lives of the people that fell apart due to the horrors of the war, moved him deeply. These dark events made him ponder about the source of happiness, the nature of consciousness, the time that makes people feel most happy and the meaning of life.

It was during this time, he saw Carl Jung giving a lecture on the psychology of UFO findings. This was a spark that lit up his soul, he went on to get a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1965.

One of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology, he materialized his timeless wisdom and childlike curiosity through empirical data into the concept of FLOW – the psychology of optimal experience, which dances between science and spirituality.

Taoist symbol depicts absolute balance

The 25 years of research that went into articulating the concept of flow, came to him as a discovery, which he says, we all were already aware of. A discovery when re-realized can make happiness (bliss and not pleasure) no more elusive.

Flow is a state of mind, where people have the optimal experience, occurring while in a deep physical or mental, complex or simple, rigorous or benign task. When one is so deeply engrossed in what they are doing that everything else ceases to exist.

In other words, being so intuned with an activity that even the roof falling, if untouched, goes unnoticed.

According to Mihalyi, the world is sandwiched by boredom and anxiety, and in between one can attain the state of flow by being completely involved in life experiences, to escape them.

In flow one finds peace and happiness, a kind that lasts, which comes with the peeling off of time, ego, man-made concepts, biases, perceptions and wrong identifications. Quoting Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, all the suffering comes from wrong identifications.

Image Reference: Mystics of India

German nihilist philosopher Nietzsche said when time is removed all distortions are straightened out.

Us Homo Sapiens have been given a brain too sophisticated to handle. If the documentation of human history hadn’t been so incomplete, we would have possibly known what morphed apes to beings that can converse over dinner.

Unfortunately, the mind has us, most of the times rather than us having one. We are the victims of our own memory and imagination. The demons of your past will jump off your back once you stop thinking of them and more will not jump at you if you stop imagining them.

What if our hands worked incessantly, without our command, as an autonomous entity like our brain? What if we spoke all that we thought of, the only difference is of certain muscle movements, isn’t it? We would be speaking to ourselves the entire day, even during the nights in dreams, the psychiatric ward wouldn’t seem too distant, would it?

The psychological concept of flow helps us understand the mind and its tricks if not helps us transgress it completely.

When one is in the flow the mind stops, the chattering, commentary stops, there’s nowhere to reach as one is already doing what’s needed and there’s nothing to else think about. It’s only the present moment and the thing required to be done in the natural course of life.

When the mind stops, one gets aware of the soul’s logic as Alan Watts would say, which is way more intelligent than the former. Once one gets more frequented with the flow, greed, envy, suffering, all falls off with the ego.

One understands better the true nature of things. The reality becomes two-wayed.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (Duality exists, so we can realize singularity)

The primary reality and secondary reality. The reality inside and the reality outside. In Zen Buddhism, the greatest of virtue is Wu Wei (wu way) which translates into doing nothing. It should be understood that Wu Wei means doing nothing in the primary reality, to be untouched and unperturbed on the inside while the outside world, or the second (material) reality plays out.

Wu Wei – The wisdom of Non-action

Becoming aware of the inner peace, the peace beneath everything is the discovery we have to re-realize according to Mihalyi. The ‘psychic entropy’ is the opposite of flow. The nature of things is to degenerate, and we need our minds and homes to be like a tended garden and not a forest.


One of the major things Mihalyi concluded is that happiness is in our hands, that we can alter our state of emotions regardless of the external situation. Obviously, one can settle in the primary reality, in the inner stillness, in the perpetual now, and know that is all that is, one move beyond happiness and sadness.

These truths have been said since time immemorial from Pre to Post Socratic philosophers, stoic philosophers, Zen monks, Hindu yogis, all teach the same thing. The only difference here was Mihalyi’s concept is based 25 years of scientific research.

A Yogi at the Ghats of Varanasi

From a neuro-psychological perspective, according to Arne Dietrich, being in flow has been associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. It is an area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like as self-reflective consciousness, temporal integration, working memory, and our explicit state of mind.

In a state of flow, this area gets temporarily down-regulate in a process called transient hypofrontality. This triggers the feelings of distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of the inner critic.

Peace Dance by Maureen Stclair

To conclude, the optimal experience is begotten when the mind is rested, and one completely loses themselves in absolutely anything from slow dancing to jazz, or even working for hours in a factory.

Author Bio:

Shubham Rajpara is a writer and a poet, who works for advertising and IT industries. He is pursuing Clinical Psychology and is also working as a Content Strategist in Ahmedabad, India. He is a Gujju by birth but a Punjabi by heart. You can reach out to him on LinkedIn