Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Concept of Flow

Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. (2001). The Concept of Flow. In Handbook of Positive
Psychology (pp. 89-105). USA: Oxford University Press.

This chapter begins with the authors posing a question: “what constitutes a good life?” and goes on with a concise definition of a good life. The authors then share a brief history of the flow concept and its development. They review some of the characteristics of flow experiences and talk about what it means to be “in flow.” Some of the notable characteristics include a strong opportunity for action that matches challenges and skills, has clear goals and offers immediate feedback.

The authors offer a more in-depth history of flow theory and briefly mention studies that validate the conclusions Csikszentmihalyi came to in the early studies on flow. They review how flow has been adopted by industry, sport, and psychology in particular. They then talk about how flow conceives of the person as being part of a larger system/environment, focused on the relationship between challenge and skill.

The authors state that what we choose to give our attention to determines our experience. They go on to state that it is in fact subjective challenges and skills that determine the quality of experience, and talk about how any activity can either produce boredom/anxiety or flow. The article presents a model of consciousness that helps contextualize flow experiences, in that they conceive of subjective experiences as the content of consciousness. The implication is that what we pay attention to determines what we feel, and therefore on some level who we are. The authors talk about consciousness as a tool to free us from the dictates of our genes.

The article enters a lengthy description of the relationship between attention and consciousness, quoting William James and talking about attention as the medium of interaction between individual and environment. The authors connect this to the conditions required to enter flow and briefly describe the relationship between attention and flow. They talk about how the deep attention characteristic of flow requires a kind of editing of consciousness, and how many objects must be ignored or eliminated. They talk about the self being one of those objects.

The article goes on to talk about how flow experiences are so gratifying that individuals continually seek to stay “in flow,” and how that requires increasingly complex challenges and the consequent growth in skills to match them. This is a positive cycle for the individual and encourages growth.

The article goes on to talk about methods used for gathering participant’s experiences. They used interviews, the Experience Sampling Method, and questionnaires. The authors talk about the characteristics of interviews. The authors go on to talk about the questionnaires and describes some useful characteristics of them. The authors explain the Experience Sampling Method in brief and offer some useful ideas on how it might be employed by others. The authors talk about how their early research in flow broke down into three basic channels-- a ‘flow channel’ along which challenges and skills match, boredom, and anxiety.

The authors make an interesting point that a balance between challenge and skill is not enough to create flow; there must be a “skill stretching” to help participants find flow. The authors also talk about apathy, a fourth channel, as a condition opposite to that of flow.

The article then goes on to talk about recent directions in flow research (as of 2002). One of the interesting avenues they discuss is flow research in school contexts. The authors place the challenge-skill relationship in the context of schools. They talk about how much schoolwork falls into a low-skill, high challenge quadrant that is characteristic of anxiety. They talk about how two kinds of experiences might be intrinsically rewarding; relaxation and flow. The authors discuss the evolutionary reasons for these experiences as being intrinsically rewarding and present the opposing (ones conducive to boredom and anxiety) as ones which organisms are programmed to avoid.

The article talks about ESM research done with adolescents and identifies beliefs about work/play that are in place by early adolescence; namely, that even though subjective indicators of motivation were higher in work situations (high-challenge, high-skill), individuals would rather be partaking in leisure activities even though those self-reported indicators of motivation were lower in leisure (low-challenge, high-skill) activities. This is a paradox.

The authors talk in depth about how much time individuals in various countries spend in flow, and identify some interesting differences between the United States and Germany.

The article then turns to interventions that foster flow. The authors talk about interventions being broadly categorized into two categories: environmental and individual. The environmental ones include changes to the situation/workplace/etc to make them more conducive to flow. The individual ones are centered around helping individuals find flow on their own, regardless of external circumstances. They talk about the Key School in Indianapolis, which has structured part of the school day around flow.

The article concludes with a discussion of some areas of research that are yet to be explored in flow theory.
“Viewed through the experiential lens of flow, a good life is one that is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

“Csiks was struck by the fact that when work on a painting was going well, the artist persisted single-mindedly, disregarding hunger, fatigue, and discomfort-- yet rapidly lost interest in the artistic creation once it had been completed.”

“Flow research and theory had their origin in a desire to understand this phenomenon of intrinsically motivated, or autotelic, activity: activity rewarding in and of itself (auto = self, telos = goal), quite apart from its end product or any intrinsic good that might result from this activity.”

“The conditions of flow include:
Perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch (neither overmatching or underutilizing existing skills; a sense that one is engaging challenges at a level appropriate to one’s capacities
Clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made”

“Being ‘in flow’ is the way that some interviewees described the subjective experience of engaging just-manageable challenges by tackling a series of goals, continuously processing feedback about progress, and adjusting action based on this feedback. Under these conditions, experiences seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment, and one enters a subjective state with the following characteristics:
Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
Merging of action and awareness
Loss of reflective self-consciousness
A sense that one can control one’s actions; that is, a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process”

“Entering flow depends on a balance between perceived action capacities and perceived action opportunities. The balance is intrinsically fragile. If challenge begins to exceed skills, one first becomes vigilant and then anxious; if skills begin to exceed challenges, one first relaxes and then becomes bored...Experiencing anxiety or boredom presses a person to adjust his or her level of skill and/or challenge in order to escape this aversive state and re-enter flow.”

“The original account of the flow state has proven remarkably robust, confirmed through studies of art and science, aesthetic experience, sport, literary writing, and other activities. The experience is the same across lines of culture, class, gender, and age, as well as across lines of activity.”

“Rather than focusing on the person, abstracted from context (i.e., traits, personality types, stable dispositions), flow research has emphasized the dynamic system composed of person and environment, as well as the phenomenology of person-environment interactions.”

“Rock climbers, surgeons, and others who routinely find deep enjoyment in an activity illustrate how an organized set of challenges and a corresponding set of skills result in optimal experience.”

“The effortless absorption experienced by the practiced artist at work on a difficult project always is premised upon earlier mastery of a complex body of skills.”

“Because the direction of the unfolding flow experience is shaped by both person and envi-
ronment, we speak of emergent motivation in an open system: what happens at any moment is responsive to what happened immediately before within the interaction, rather than being dictated by a preexisting intentional structure located within either the person (e.g., a drive) or the environment (e.g., a tradition or script).”

“It is the subjectively perceived opportunities and capacities for action that determine experience.”

“It is the subjec-tively perceived opportunities and capacities for action that determine experience. That is, there is no objectively defined body of information and set of challenges within the stream of the person's experience, but rather the information that is selectively attended to and the opportunities for action that are perceived. Likewise, it is not meaningful to speak about a person’s skills and attentional capacities in objective terms; what enters into lived experience are those capacities for action and those attentional resources and biases (e.g., trait interest) that are engaged by this presently encountered environment.”

“Sports, games, and other flow activities provide goal and feedback structures that make flow more likely. A given individual can find flow in almost any activity, however--working a cash register, ironing clothes, driving a car. Similarly, under certain conditions and depending on an individual’s history with the activity, almost any pursuit-a museum visit, a round of golf, a game of chess-can bore or create anxiety. It is the subjective challenges and subjective skills, not objective ones, that influence the quality of a persons experience.”

“To understand what happens in flow experiences, we need to invoke the more general model of experience, consciousness, and the self that was developed in conjunction with the flow concept (Csikszentmihalyi is: Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). According to this model, people are confronted with an overwheiming amount of information. Consciousness is the complex system that has evolved in humans for seiecting information from this profusion, processing it, and storing it. information appears in consciousness through the selective investment of attention. Once attended to, information enters awareness, the system encompassing all of the processes that take place in consciousness, such as thinking, willing, and feeling about this information (i.e., cognition, motivation, and emotion). The memory system then stores and retrieves the information. We can think of subjective experience as the content of consciousness. The self emerges when consciousness comes into existence and becomes aware of itself as information about the body, subjective states, past memories, and the personal future.”

“Consciousness gives us a measure of control, freeing us from complete subservience to the dictates of genes and culture by representing them in awareness, thereby introducing the al-
ternative of rejecting rather than enacting them. Consciousness thus serves as ‘a clutch between programmed instructions and adaptive behaviors.’”

“Attentional processes shape a person’s experience. The ability to regulate one’s attention is underappreciated. As we have noted elsewhere, “What to pay attention to, how intensely and for how long, are choices that will determine the content of consciousness, and therefore the experiential information available to the organism. Thus, William James was right in claiming, ‘My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind'” [Csikszentmihalyi, 1978, p. 339). The choices made are critical because attention is finite, limiting the amount of information that can be processed in consciousness.”

“This information is the medium of exchange between person and environment, as well as the material out of which the self is formed. Attention thus plays a key role in entering and staying in flow. Entering flow is largely a function of how attention has been focused in the past and how it is focused in the present by the activity's structural conditions. Interests developed in the past will direct attention to specific challenges. Clear proximal goals, immediate feedback, and just-manageable levels of challenge orient the organism, in a unified and coordinated way, so that attention becomes completely absorbed into the stimulus field defined by the activity.”

“Intense concentration, perhaps the defining quality of flow, is just another way of saying that attention is wholly invested in the present exchange. Action and awareness merge in the absence of spare attention that might allow objects beyond the immediate interaction to enter awareness. One such object is the self; the loss of self-consciousness in flow marks the fading of...awareness, as attention is taken up entirely by the challenges being engaged. The passage of time, a basic parameter of experience, becomes distorted because attention is so fully focused elsewhere.”

“Staying in flow requires that attention be held by this limited stimulus field. Apathy, boredom, and anxiety, like flow, are largely functions of how attention is being structured at a given time. In boredom, and even more so in apathy, the low level of challenge relative to skills allows attention to drift. In anxiety, perceived challenges exceed capacities. Particularly in contexts of extrinsic motivation, attention shifts to the self and its shortcomings, creating a self-consciousness that impedes engagement of the challenges.”

“When attention is completely absorbed in the challenges at hand, the individual achieves an ordered state of consciousness. Thoughts, feelings, wishes, and action are in concert. Subjective experience is both differentiated and integrated, the defining qualities of a complex phenomenon. The notion of complexity applies in a second sense, as well. The flow state is intrinsically rewarding and leads the individual to seek to replicate flow experiences; this introduces a selective mechanism into psychological functioning that fosters growth. As people master challenges in an activity, they develop greater levels of skill, and the activity ceases to be as involving as before. In order to continue experiencing flow, they must identify and engage progressively more complex challenges.”

“A flow activity not only provides a set of challenges or opportunities for action but it typically also provides a system of graded challenges, able to accommodate a person's continued and deepening enjoyment as skills grow.”

“We observed that possessing skills and interest in an activity is one precondition for finding flow in it. Descending a staircase is an almost unnoticed means to an end for the person on foot, but it might be a beckoning opportunity for flow to the person on a skateboard. The phenomenon of emergent motivation means we can come to experience a new or previously unengaging activity as intrinsically motivating if we once find flow in it. The moivation to persist in or return to the activity arises out of the experience itself. The flow experience is thus a force for expansion in relation to the individuals goal and interest structure, as well as for growth of skills in relation to an existing interest.”

“The...[autotelic] personality is distinguished by several metaskills or competencies that enable the individual to enter flow and stay in it. These metaskills include a general curiosity and interest in life, persistence, and low self-centeredness, which result in the ability to be motivated by intrinsic rewards.”

“As described, the flow concept emerged out of qualitative interviews about the nature of the experience when a particular activity is going well (Csikszentrnihalyi, 1975/2008). The semi-structured interview provides a holistic, ernic account of the flow experience in real-life context. It was a critical tool in initially identifying and delineating dimensions and dynamics of the flow experience. lt continues to be the approach of choice in studies directed toward rich, integrated description. For example, Jackson (1995) has asked elite athletes to describe a flow experience, distinguishing the characteristics of the state, factors that help and hinder entry into the state, factors that disrupt it, and degree of control over it. Perry (1999) has focused writers on the most recent occasion when they lost track of time while writing, asking them to describe what led up to the experience and how they deal with blocks that keep them out of flow.”

“One-time paper-and-pencil measures have been used when the goal is not to identify but instead to measure dimensions of the How experience and/or differences in its occurrence across contexts or individuals. The Flow Questionnaire presents respondents with several passages descnbing the flow state and asks (a) whether they have had the experience, (b) how often, and (c) in what activity contexts (Csikszentmihalyi &t Csikszentinihalyi, 1988). The quotations used were drawn from the original interviews about flow activities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975/2000), one each from a dancer, a rock climber, and a composer. Allison and Duncan {l988) presented a sample of working women with an additional composite description of “anti-flow” experience encompassing the aversive states of anxiety, boredom, and apathy.”

“The Flow Scale (Meyers, 1978) elicits an estimate of the frequency with which a person experiences each of ten dimensions of the flow experience (e.g., "I get involved,” "I get direct clues as to how well I am doing”). The instrument has been used as a repeated measure to assess differences across activity contexts in the extent to which the flow dimensions are experienced.”

“The Experience Sampling Method interview and questionnaire approaches are limited by (a) their reliance on retrospective reconstruction of past experience and (b) the requirement that respondents first average across many discrete experiences to compose a picture of the typical subjective experience when things are going well, and then estimate the frequency and/or intensity of this experience. The study of flow has progressed in large part because researchers in the late 1970s developed a tool uniquely suited to the study of situated experience, including optimal experience. Full descriptions of the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) can be found elsewhere [e.g., Csikszentmihalyi &c Larson, 1987). Subjects are equipped with paging devices (pagers, programmable watches, or handheld computers); these signal them, at preprogrammed times, to complete a questionnaire describing the moment at which they were paged. The method takes samples from the stream of actual everyday experience. Unlike diaries and time budgets, use of the ESM from the beginning focused on sampling not only activities but also cognitive, emotional, and motivational states, providing a tool for building a systematic phenomenology. Contents of the questionnaire vary depending on the research goals, as do paging schedules and study duration. A quasi-random schedule with data collected for one week has been widely used to provide a representative picture of daily life. ESM studies of flow have focused on the sampled moments when (a) the conditions for flow exist, based on the balance of challenges (or opportunities for action) and skills [abilities to deai with the situation) and/ or (b) the flow state is reported. The latter usually is measured by summing the self-reported levels of concentration, involvement, and enjoyment, which are typically measured on 10-point scales. These three dimensions provide a good proxy for what is in reality a much more complex state of consciousness.”

“The first mapping of the phenomenological landscape in terms of perceived challenges and skills identified three regions of experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975/2000): a flow channel along which challenges and skills matched; a region of boredom, as opportunities for action relative to skills dropped off; and a region of anxiety, as challenges increasingly exceeded capacities for action. This mapping was based on the original accounts of deep flow.”

“Simply balancing challenges and skills did not optimize the quality of experience. As Massimini and his colleagues clarified, inherent in the flow concept is the notion of skill stretching. Activities providing minimal opportunities for action do not lead to flow, regardless of whether the actor experiences a balance between perceived challenge and skill.”

“[We can define] flow as the balance of challenges and skills when both are above average levels for the iridioidual. That is, how is expected to occur when individuals perceive greater opportunities for action than they encounter on average in their daily lives, and have skills adequate to engage them. This shift led to an important remapping of the phenomenological terrain, revealing a fourth state, apathy, associated with low challenges and correspondingly low skills. Experientially, it is a sphere of stagnation and attentional diffusion, the inverse of the flow state.”

“...Researchers therefore have operationalized the disposition as intrinsic motivation in high-challenge, high-skill situations, reflected in low mean scores on the item "I wish to be doing something else” when subjective challenges and skills are both above average.”

“According to the flow model, experiencing flow encourages a person to persist at and return to an activity because of the experiential rewards it promises, and thereby fosters the growth of skills over time.”

“In several studies, flow was associated with commitment and achievement during the high school years (Carli, Delle Fave, & Massimini, 1988; Mayers, 1978; Nalcamura, 1988). More recently, a longitudinal ESM study of talented high school students provided evidence of a relationship between quality of experience and persistence in an activity. Students still committed to their talent area at age 17 were compared with peers who already had disengaged. Four years earlier, those currently still committed had experienced more flow and less anxiety than their peers when engaged in school-related activities; they also were more likely to have identified their talent area as a source of flow (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993). In a longitudinal study of students talented in mathematics (Heine, 1996), those who experienced flow in the first part of a course performed better in the second half, controlling for their initial abilities and grade point average. Because the self grows through flow experiences, we also might expect time spent in flow to predict self-esteem. Corre-
lational studies with ESM data support this expectation (Adlai-Gail, 1994; Wells, 1988).”

“We speculate that two kinds of experiences might be intrinsically rewarding: one involving conservation of energy (relaxation), the other involving the use of skills to seize ever-greater opportunities {flow]. lt is consistent with current understandings of evolution to suppose that both of these strategies for coping with the environment, one conservative and the other expansive, were selected over time as important components of the human behavioral repertoire, even though they motivate different-in some sense, opposite-behaviors. The two distinctly aversive situations, which organisms are presumably programmed to avoid, are those in which one feels overwhelmed by environmental demands [anxiety] or left with nothing to do.”

“An ESM study of students in grades 6 through 12 revealed that these attitudes toward work and play are already in place by sixth grade and intensify across the adolescent years(Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Motivation in experiences characterized as "work" (academic classes and, later, paid jobs) was lower than in experiences characterized as "play" (e.g., passive activities like TV viewing), even though the worklike experiences were associated with higher concentration, importance to the future, and self-esteem. On a positive note, 10% of the time sampled, students reported engaging in extra-curricular activities and pursuing art, games, and hobbies outside of formal settings. They labeled these activities as simultaneously worklike and playlike and experienced them as both important and enjoyable. ln addition, both "play" and “work” were more positive than experiences that were labeled neither worklike nor playlike (e. g., maintenance activities like chores).”

“Individuals vary in the time spent in flow. Over one third of those surveyed in UB. and German polls (responding to slightly different questions) estimated that they rarely or never experienced involvement so intense that they lose track of time (42% of Americans, 35% of Germans), Whereas about one fifth (16% of Americans, 23% of Germans) reported having such experiences daily (Gallup Poll, 1998; Noelle-Neumann, 1995), Adopting a different metric, Lelfevre (1988) found that a sample of adult workers included about 40% who were most motivated in high-challenge, high-skill situations and about 40% who were most motivated in low-challenge, low-skill situations; the fomer might be called autotelic individuals. Mea-
suring autotelic personality similarly with young adults, Hektner (1996) confirmed that autotelics were least happy and motivated in apathy (low-challenge, low-skill) situations, whereas nonautotelics (those least motivated in high-challenge, high-skill situations) did not find the apathy condition aversive. Individual differences thus clearly exist.”

“Flow principles have been translated into practice in a variety of contexts. Two types of intervention can be distinguished: (a] those seeking to shape activity structures and environments so that they foster flow or obstruct it less and b] those attempting to assist individuals in finding flow.”

“Educational settings present an opportunity to apply the results of flow research most di-
rectly. One experiment deserving mention is the 15-year-old Key School in Indianapolis, where the goal is to foster flow by influencing both environment and individual {Whalen, 1999). This public elementary and middle school seeks to (a) create a learning environment that fosters flow experiences and (lv) help students form interests and develop the capacity and propensity to experience flow. In the Flow Activities Center, students have regular opportunities to actively choose and engage in activities related to their own interests and then pursue these activities without imposed demands or pacing. The teacher supports chiidren’s selection and enjoyment of activities that challenge and stretch them and helps the students to identify new chailenges as their capacities grow. Based on observations of the Flow Activities Center and conversations with teachers, Whalen concluded that the center is effectively fostering “serious play” (Csikszentrnihalyi et al., 1993] and that it has introduced values of flow and intrinsic motivation into the life of the school more generally.”

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