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What You Didn’t Know About Optimal Experience

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (the researcher who coined the term “flow”) originally set out to study exemplary people because he wanted to understand what constitutes those “peak experiences” often described by champion athletes, recognized artists. However, what he discovered was a state not just where psychic entropy is absent (he calls this state “negentrophy”) but where optimal experiences happen.


What Csikszentmihaly uncovered was that the state of flow differs greatly from all other states of consciousness – such as psychic entropy, where information conflicts with our existing intentions or prevents us from carrying them out. In the state of flow, the entirety of our attention is devoted to the task at hand. The example that Csikszentmihalyi gives is the difference between being distracted at work by the flat tire you will have to deal with on your way home, and being completely immersed in what you are doing. Csikszentmihalyi describes this type of experience as “the order of consciousness”, where all of the information that comes into awareness is congruent with our goals. In this state, psychic energy flows in the direction of our intentions. That is to say, we operate without distraction, worry, self-doubt, or questioning ourselves (Csiksentmihalyi, 2005).


According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow experiences result when the challenge in front of us perfectly matches our skills. Describing what he calls a “flow channel”, when our skills exceed the task we face, the result is boredom, and on the other hand, when the task is too challenging, we experience anxiety. To have flow, then, challenges must fall into the “channel” just enough to challenge us, but not too much to overwhelm us.


When in the flow state, we become so completely engrossed in the task at hand that – without consciously choosing to, we lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. The reason for this, Csiksentmihalyi explains, is because all of our attention in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated (Csiksentmihalyi, 2008). Csikszentmihalyi further describes flow as the “optimal experience” and one that brings a high level of gratification.


In describing what leads to flow, Csiksentmihalyi explained that three conditions must be met:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand (Csiksentmihalyi, 2005).


When all three conditions are met, the theory holds that flow will be characterized by the following six factors:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment – what many call “hyperfocus”.
  2. Merging of action and awareness – a feeling of oneness.
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness – described as having a “quiet mind”.
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity – feeling as if the task is challenging, but one in which you are capable.
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered – a complete immersion in the activity so that no attention is paid to time.
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience – the experience of the activity is its own reward (Nakamura, Csiksentmihalyi, 2014).


The trick to experiencing flow then is to find just the right environmental conditions that lead to the right level of arousal. And because arousal level is also influenced by a set of internal factors such as temperament, working memory capacity, cognitive appraisal and processing, and previous experiences, just how stimulated a person needs to be to find flow could take some tinkering.


Yet when we look at neurophysiological studies that use EMG imaging of the brain in flow we get a different picture. Comparing the brains of two people in identical circumstances, the brain in flow looks dramatically different from the brain at resting levels – but not in the way you might expect.


While in flow there a high arousal level, there is actually no more stimulation than baseline levels. However, the brain in flow shows activation on both sides of the brain. On the other hand, under normal conditions, there is a dominance of left brain activity. And this makes sense. When we are completely absorbed in an experience that we enjoy, we are employing imagery, visualization, and felt-sense – all right brain processes. Outside of flow – often to meet daily demands – we rely on logical, analytical, left-brain processes.


And the results are dramatically different too. While in flow we experience challenges as enthralling, absorbing, and even euphoric – in fact they often excite us. These same challenges in our daily lives often leave us feeling overwhelmed, unable to focus, and highly anxious. In flow we are transformed – obstacles become exciting tests of our skills, activating and directing our strengths to the challenge. And when in flow we experience ourselves differently. No longer are we bound by our imposed limits, but rather, capable – more capable than we have ever been. And the reason might have something to do with symmetry.


While Nassim Nicholas Talleb,  the author of Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, describes antifragility in asymmetrical terms – antifragility is defined as the presence of more positive than negative outcomes after exposure to uncertainty or stressors – flow can be understood as both symmetrical and asymmetrical. It is a state which creates a unified interaction of right and left brain process in an upward trajectory that expands the sense of self.


Not only do we become more at one with the self through flow, but the self at which we become one with becomes more advanced, better able to take on stressors, harnessing our best resources to meet the challenge. And the result is not an improved sense of self, it is an expanded sense of self – one that incorporates the experience of risk, difficulty, and stress in a process that seeks not to manage them, but rather to use them.


Yet the evaluation of symmetry and asymmetry is implicit in every situation we find ourselves in – there is an assessment of benefits and losses. It’s only natural to weigh what we stand to lose alongside what we stand to gain. For example, if we could gain five thousand dollars, but might lose five hundred in the process, the risk might be worth it. On the other hand, if we could lose five thousand, while only potentially gaining five hundred, the answer is obvious. However, to really determine asymmetry, we need to weigh gains against losses that are equivalent in nature. If the pain of losing five thousand outweighs the benefit of gaining five thousand, we have an asymmetry.


The important thing to understand about flow is that it is a game of symmetry. And where there is symmetry, there is paradox. While we have a degree of confidence in our ultimate success, we also recognize our complete lack of control over the external circumstances that we face.


If our confidence outweighs the invariability that surrounds us, we are not challenged. We are bored. On the other hand, if we feel as though the uncertainty that we face (and the perceived chance of failure) is too great, we have anxiety. And this is the paradox of control: in flow one feels both in control, and at the mercy of the task – in equal proportions.


And because symmetry in flow can also been seen through the combination of two central characteristics of flow: the merging of action and awareness and the loss of self-consciousness, the loss of self-consciousness may provide a gateway through which the feeling of control is facilitated. So here is the second paradox in flow: it is only when we let go of control (through decreased self-consciousness), that we truly gain control.


The energy states in flow also observe a symmetrical nature – what we put out we gain back. Rather than relying on mechanical energy (or the use an external energy supply) flow is powered by the feedback we receive – often the more immediate the feedback, the greater the opportunity for flow. Those in flow consistently report significantly elevated states of energy, which are often combined with the accomplishment of otherwise physically impossible tasks.


And these states cannot be attributed only to physical causes – because flow states, while they require a physical condition that provides immediate feedback and clear and consistent goals, depend rather on a physiological readiness, marked by one’s arousal states. Arousal states are psychic states. So here is the third paradox of flow: the more we devote our energy to reaching our threshold for challenge (remember the “flow channel”), the more energy we gain in return.


And this might be the biggest argument we can make for flow: that flow directs our energy into a system that pays dividends. Unlike synchronization with the material world, flow involves synchronization with ourselves – with clear psychic rewards.



Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper Perrenial Classics.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. “Handbook of positive psychology,” 89-105. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Talleb, N.N., (2014) Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. New York, Random House


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, visit

What You Didn’t Know About Optimal Experience

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). What You Didn’t Know About Optimal Experience. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Jul 2016
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