Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying the concept of flow and optimal experiences for nearly six decades.  Traumatic early life experiences set him on the path of trying to understand the true roots of happiness.  He was incarcerated during World War II at the age of eight and became taken with how some of the adults around him were able to create a life in prison that was still worth living.  Chess was a big part of that life and the ability to become completely absorbed by the game captured his imagination.

Years later, he interviewed hundreds of high-performing artists, thinkers and athletes to identify the elements involved in the feeling of being completely immersed in an activity with concentrated attention and deliberate effort. He coined the term “flow” to describe this experience and concluded that people perform best and experience the highest levels of satisfaction and happiness when they are in a flow state.  Finding the perfect balance in the nervous system helps one access this state of focused energy.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi says flow occurs “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

Some of the conditions of flow he describes are the following:

  • A healthy balance between perceived challenges and existing skills
  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback about one’s progress
  • The ability to adjust actions based on feedback

The delicate balancing act of challenge vs. ability is illustrated in a chart he created.

The beauty of this model is its simplicity in exposing both the problem and the solution.  We’ve all experienced the feeling of a challenge exceeding our ability: first you become alert, then anxious.  On the other hand, if your abilities exceed the task, you may relax at first, but then become bored.  Either response – anxiety or boredom – is suboptimal and should urge you to adjust your skill or the challenge.

The sweet spot (in the upper right corner) is where skill matches the task and both are at a relatively high level. In the clinic or the classroom, this state is often referred to as being “Just Right.”  You recognize when you’ve found it with the autonomic nervous system as your guide.  You’ll notice signals in the: eyes (bright and focused); face (content with the ability to express all emotions); voice (capable of prosody or tone changes); body (relaxed but with good muscle tone); and rate of movement (smooth and responsive – not too fast or slow).  These are all indicators of a state of focused, relaxed and confident alertness optimal for learning, growing and feeling satisfied.

All of iLs’ therapy products can help to improve state regulation.  This peer-reviewed study on the effect of the Focus System sensory motor program on the autonomic nervous system was published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy Schools & Early Intervention.  The authors found changes in arousal measures suggestive of better homeostasis of the autonomic nervous system.

TED Talks. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness