Flow 2 1(Link to related podcast episode)

 As we think about healthy, productive, and fulfilling work, Mihaly Csikszentmihali’s concept of flow comes to mind.  Flow (sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”) is not often thought of as spiritual but there is a potential relationship that is worth exploring, and in any case the concept by itself has a lot to say about human flourishing and growth.

 Csikszentmihali described the concept of flow as: 

. . . a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. Everyone experiences flow from time to time and will recognize its characteristics: people typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Both a sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence.[i]

 Characteristics of Flow

 When we are in a state of flow, we are fully engaged with the task, working at peak effectiveness, and not coincidentally experiencing something of a feeling of joy.  As I understand him, such experiences typically involve most, and sometimes all, of the following characteristics:[ii]

  • The individual believes that the task is worth doing (i.e. it has meaning and significance).
  • There is a good fit between the challenges of the task and the skills of the individual; there needs to be enough challenge to require the full attention of the participant and to allow the development of a sense of mastery, but not so much that the person becomes frustrated or overwhelmed.
  • Full attention is given to the task, resulting in a temporary merging of action and awareness; no attention is available for distractions such as anxieties about job performance or security.
  • The task has clear goals and feedback that provide a structure and a basis for knowing whether one has succeeded in performing the task.
  • The sense of time can be altered.
  • The subject experiences a sense of joy as self consciousness recedes and he or she becomes absorbed in the task

Ordered Consciousness

The key to attaining a state of flow is the control of attention:

They are situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend itself against.[iii] 

Csikszentmihalyi speaks of disordered versus ordered consciousness.  A disordered consciousness is one in which the mind is pulled involuntarily in unwanted directions, often by fears, anxieties, resentments, and other forms of painful dysphoria.  An ordered consciousness, on the other hand, involves developing the capability to focus attention on the most appropriate areas while letting go of the various dysfunctional distractions.  Csikszentmihalyi believes that ordered consciousness is more likely to result in human happiness.

Imagine, then, if we could spend much more of our work time in a state of flow.  We would be fully engaged, focused, energized, free of distractions, operating at peak effectiveness, and would probably be experiencing a sense of joy and satisfaction in our work.  We would also be completing our work in less time, giving us extra time for our spiritual practices and other activities.

Is there a spiritual or religious connection?

I do not that flow was intended to be a religious concept. Nevertheless, I do think there are several possible points of contact with one’s faith or spirituality:

1)   Spiritual practices can help us move in the direction of the state of flow.  Being able to focus on the task at hand, letting go of distractions, and working in a more relaxed state (or at least less tense) are all possible benefits from spiritual practices.  To develop a deeper sense of mission through our prayer and meditation and then to execute this mission as we move outward into the world will most likely enhance our abilities in this regard. 

2)   To the extent that our faith helps us develop virtues that apply in the workplace (in particular patience, humility, compassion, equanimity, transparency), we are less likely to be burdened by the distractions of resentment, anger, fear, pride, social pressure, and excessive self concern, and  thereby more likely to be able to engage in the task at hand.

3)   Knowing and accepting who we are in a deeper sense also helps us to eliminate the distractions; faith helps provide this meaning.

I wonder also if the state of flow might be inherently spiritual.  It seems to represent a state of being fully engaged, fully conscious.  And it is an engagement that is neither obsessive nor enslaving; Csikszentmihali observes that people who are able to enter a state of flow are also better able to leave their work behind when it is time to stop.  Does this have spiritual implications?  I think maybe it does.

In any case, Csikszentmihalyi has much more to say, and does so in a very rich style. I thoroughly recommend his work, including the items referenced below. 


[I] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, http://www.psy-flow.com/sites/psy-flow/files/docs/flow.pdf (Global LearningCommunities, 2000).

[ii] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Collins, 2008/1990) pp. 48ff.

[iii] Csikszentmihalyi (2008/1990) p. 40.