Ever find yourself totally absorbed in an activity? It could be playing a sport, writing a poem, playing a piece of music, painting a picture, watching a caterpillar, doing a math problem, or some other challenging project. If so, then you have had an experience of ”flow.”
This concept, developed by the Hungarian-American psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, describes an experience he studied in rock climbers, surgeons, artists, and other skilled individuals. He discovered that these individuals all described a similar phenomenon: total focus on an activity that might last for hours, where they’re oblivious to external events other than the task at hand, and where they emerge from the work feeling, not exhausted, but totally refreshed.
He said flow experiences can happen to anyone. It’s really a matter of balancing challenge with ability. If you do something, say a math problem, that’s too difficult, you’re likely to feel anxiety or stress (too much challenge). On the other hand, if the math problem is too easy for you, you’re likely to feel bored or fidgety (too much ability). It’s finding that sweet spot where the challenge is sufficient enough and your ability is up to the challenge that you’re more likely to have a flow experience.
We can have flow experiences in a variety of activities. In fact, in this video I describe how Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences provides us with a template to discover these flow states in ourselves, and that we’re more likely to have a flow state in an intelligence in which we have at least some ability. Here are the eight intelligences with some activities where you might find yourself going into a flow state:
- Word Smart: reading a book, writing a poetry, giving a speech
- Number/Logic Smart: doing a science experiment, solving a logic puzzle
- Picture Smart: drawing, doodling, painting, sculpting, or watching a movie
- Music Smart: playing piano, composing a song, listening to recordings
- Body Smart: engaged in a sport, building something, doing yoga
- Nature Smart: birdwatching, rock climbing, hiking, studying insects
- People Smart: having an intimate chat with a friend, engaged in a group project
- Self Smart: meditating, journaling, going through a rite of passage
As Dr. Csikzentmihalyi puts it: ”Optimal experience [Flow] is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
For more information about flow, see Dr. Csikzentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. To learn more about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, get my books:
- Adult learners (7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences)
- Educators who teach children and adolescents — kindergarten through high school (Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th edition) and/or
- Parents (In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences).
This blog post was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong.