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What Is Flow? And Why Do The World’s Top Performers Chase It?

Think back to one of the happiest, most memorable events in your life. How were you feeling at the time? What state of being were you in?

Developed by psychologists 1975, the concept of “flow” or “flow state”, is also known colloquially as being in the zone.

Flow (psychology) noun /fləʊ/
The mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

People experiencing this flow state often mention feeling calm, focused, fully present, and often describe time as slowing down, with tasks or activities becoming effortless.

This state may often be very, very, very illusive. It’s highly sought after by elite performers in the fields of business and sports, yet at the same time may have significant benefit for people’s everyday lives. [1]

The feeling of flow is often quite different from pleasure or euphoria in most of the other aspects of our lives we are used to, such as eating something amazingly yummy, having a relaxing massage, or that delicious feeling when you go for a swim on a hot day. This can be attributed to the fact that flow may elevate our state of being beyond our material senses, and power our ability to discover new ways of thinking, being, and doing - and to grow in the process. People often refer to enjoying flow experience because it takes them above an everyday existence - like a superpower that lets you play the game of life on a whole other level.

This concept is often touched upon in pop culture, featuring in J.K. Rowling's uber popular book 'Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince'. In the story Felix Felicis, also called "Liquid Luck", was a potion that made the drinker lucky for a period of time, during which everything they attempt would be successful. It turned an ordinary day into an extraordinary one.

“Well, here goes," said Harry, and he raised the little bottle and took a carefully measured gulp. "What does it feel like?" whispered Hermione. Harry did not answer for a moment. Then, slowly but surely, an exhilarating sense of infinite opportunity stole through him; he felt as though he could have done anything, anything at all...and getting the memory from Slughorn seemed suddenly not only possible, but positively easy.... He got to his feet, smiling, brimming with confidence. "Excellent," he said. "Really excellent.

-J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

"Don't ever go with the flow. Be the flow"


According to best-selling author Kevin Maney when someone is in a state of flow, that person's brain is not really thinking about anything - it's just processing things through chunks at a total instinct level.

Athletes in a state of flow describe knowing what will happen just before it does - knowing how a defender will react to a certain move an instant before doing it. Of course, if you know what will happen, you can succeed at doing it. So an athlete in flow has a stand-out game, and an athlete who can reproduce and maintain flow - a standout season season and career. Think Michael Jordan, Lewis Hamilton, Roger Federer and Serena Williams.

“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.”

Lao Tzu

Some potential benefits of being in this zone may be:

Flow focuses your attention on the important and the positive. When in a flow state, one may shut down self-consciousness and potentially negative mind-wandering. It’s possible to focus wholly on the task at hand - rather than thinking about perceived inadequacies and others’ opinions.

Flow may lead to improved performance. Some research suggests that one of the major benefits of flow is that it can enhance human performance in most areas of human work and creativity. With flow it’s usually possible to attain better results, faster. [2-7]

Flow may accelerate learning & skill development. Flow is sometimes facilitated when we practice and/or master a skill, and when one continually seeks new challenges in order to develop flow, they may see reciprocal growth in their abilities and their confidence.

Flow teaches you to rise to challenges. Life can be messy, difficult, and complicated. Often nothing comes easy, and timing can be rarely on your side. Waiting for the perfect time or circumstances to deal with challenges, may result in that time never coming. The daily practices involved with getting into a flow state can often make conquering challenges both big and small significantly easier. Life can be scary and difficult, but risk and reward go hand in hand. For athletes and business people alike, this can be a game-changer.

Flow may increase enjoyment and creativity. Being in a state of flow may not only just heighten creativity at the moment. It may actually trains us to be more open to discovery and innovation. Periods of flow are often linked with intense concentration, which some studies suggest may positively change our brain wiring. When we’re in flow, we may get the benefit from natural pleasure-inducing and performance-enhancing chemicals. [2-7]

Flow can be the ultimate eustress experience. Flow and stress appear to be mutually exclusive states of being. Flow can be described as the ultimate eustress experience possible. Eustress is an interesting concept, and refers to a positive cognitive response to stressors, helping us feel a sense of fulfilment, meaning, and hope. Eustress comes only when we are fully present, focused on meeting a challenge, and feeling exhilarated, and typically requires some state of flow to achieve.

"Flow is an optimal state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity ... In a state of flow, you're neither bored nor anxious, and you don't question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing"

Susan Cain


[1]Nakamura, Jeanne, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "The concept of flow." Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. Springer, Dordrecht, 2014. 239-263.

[2]Moneta, Giovanni B. "On the measurement and conceptualization of flow." Advances in flow research. Springer, New York, NY, 2012.

[3]Jackson, Susan A., and Herbert W. Marsh. "Development and validation of a scale to measure optimal experience: The Flow State Scale." Journal of sport and exercise psychology 18.1 (1996): 17-35.

[4]Nakamura, Jeanne, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Flow theory and research." Handbook of positive psychology 195 (2009): 206.

[5]Katahira, Kenji, et al. "EEG correlates of the flow state: A combination of increased frontal theta and moderate frontocentral alpha rhythm in the mental arithmetic task." Frontiers in Psychology 9 (2018): 300.

[6]Jackson, Susan A. "Factors influencing the occurrence of flow state in elite athletes." Journal of applied sport psychology 7.2 (1995):

[7]Jackson, Susan A. "Joy, fun, and flow state in sport." (2000).

Dietrich, Arne. "Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow." Consciousness and Cognition 13.4 (2004): 746-761.

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