Beyond arousal and control: “Flow”


I really like this visual depiction of flow.

Some of you might remember that I am fascinated with the concept of flow, and the Positive Psychology that is based on it.

Flow is a state of effortless and complete absorption into whatever we are doing, a state in which we are and feel at our best and most creative, when we achieve harmony and mastery, when we forget time and feel good.

Flow does not come easily, of course. They say that it takes ten years of training at something–soccer, violin, writing, you name it–before you become able to slip into flow.

Which brings me to this diagram. It is by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an unpronouncable Hungarian psychologist who might just belong into my growing pantheon of great thinkers. Indeed, quite a few people consider him a great thinker, and he has even received an award called Thinker of the Year.

You can view the diagram the following way:

Most of us spend most of our time hanging out somewhere near the bottom left:

  • We are apathetic because we are not challenged and have not applied ourselves to mastery of anything, or
  • we have taken up a challenge unprepared and are floundering, which causes us to worry, or
  • we are good at something but not challenged, so we become bored.

The way out is two sweep either clockwise or counterclockwise in the diagram:

  • Challenge yourself, by finding something you want to master. If your skill level is low, at least you will feel aroused, which is a good first step toward learning and flow.


  • Keep learning, practicing, mastering, refining. Even if you are not challenged yet, you will become relaxed and feel in control, which builds confidence and is also a great step toward flow.

This is, of course, nothing but the self-help manual of the Samurai and Zen disciples through the centuries.

It’s also a great reminder for us parents and teachers (especially those public-school bureaucrats in America): You must, you must, you must challenge a child to “educate” (ex-ducare = lead out) him or her from apathy.

Watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk:

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