[Beyond Boredom & Anxiety] Elements of Flow

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to read the book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

The concept of flow is widely known as the state of maximum performance of human’s capacity. Experts often describe this experience as producing intense enjoyment and productivity. Therefore it holds a unique position if we want to talk about how to escape boredom and anxiety, especially in the context of workplace where we often have to solve problems. The elements that constitute the flow state would give us insight on how to replicate these characteristics, and thus to induce this maximum performance experience.

The first characteristic is the merging of action and awareness. A person engaging in flow experience is aware of his actions, but not the awareness itself. For the flow experience to persist, one must not reflect on the fact that he is experiencing it. If one starts to snap back to reality and perceives himself outside of the activity, then flow is interrupted. Therefore, flow is hard to maintain for a long time without any momentary distractions.

For actions to merge with awareness to such an extend, the activity must be feasible. Flow seems to occur only for tasks that are within one’s ability to perform. If it was not, then one is unsure and questions his own actions, hence awareness would precede actions and they would seem discontinued.

The merging of the action and awareness is made possible due to a second characteristic of flow: A centering attention on a limited stimulus field. To ensure full concentration on the actions, unnecessary stimulus must be cut out, otherwise awareness about irrelevant things would creep in and we must sort them out, disrupting the flow experience.

In games, rules define the limited stimulus one must pay attention to, everything else is irrelevant. However, rules alone may not attract players. That’s why most games have motivational characteristics such as competition, or the possibility of material gain. Some activities require danger to centering your attention, and hence producing the flow state.

The third characteristic of flow is the loss of ego. When one becomes fully involved with the activity, “selfish” considerations fade away. A function of self is to mediate the integration of one’s actions with others which is crucial to social life. Flow activities, however, don’t require negotiation. Since there are freely accepted rules that the games are based on, the players don’t need to socialize to get along. Loss of self occurs because the participants need no self to bargain about what should or should not be done.

Another characteristic of flow experiences is that the person experiencing flow is in control of his actions and the environment. He has no active self awareness of control, but simply is not concerned by the possibility of lack of control. Only upon thinking back does he conclude that his skills were adequate to handle the situation.

Another quality of flow experiences is that it usually contains coherent rules with specified consequence of actions and no conflicting demands. If there are conflicting demands, we are back to the social games to analyze the individual needs for prioritization.

Finally, flow experiences appear to be autotelic – they need no external rewards to itself. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not to achieve peak experiences from the flow. There is no possible reason for climbing except climbing itself.

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