I.2.1 Flow and Groupflow

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly“Flow denotes the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement. It is the kind of feeling after which one nostalgically says: “that was fun,” or “that was enjoyable”; it is the state in which action follows upon action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future” (p. 43).

Csikszentmihalyi describes the elements of flow as
  • A challenging activity that requires skills: This activity can be in sports, it can be in work, and it can be artistic or literary. A simple way to create a challenging activity is to make it competitive. A soccer team at a match needs to get into flow, or it will have no chances of winning. If it wins, the experience will be a thrill and thoroughly enjoyable. However, wherever there are winners, there are also losers. While the winning team was in flow, the losing team will be depressed and definitively not in flow. Computer games are another opportunity to get into flow, although in this case too much flow might be detrimental to health.
  • Merging of action and awareness: People become so immersed into what they are doing that the action becomes spontaneous and automatic. I am a very mediocre skier, but on a sunny winter day with gorgeous powder snow under a blue sky I forget all my fears and technical limitations swinging downhill through fresh powder snow. The same is true for a group of musicians oblivious to their environment and fully immersed into the beauty of the melody they are playing together.
  • Clear goals and feedback: For instance somebody learning to juggle balls will have very clear goals, and will get immediate feedback for losing the flow of juggling when the balls fall down. The same is true for the band of musicians, who will immediately know when they are getting out of flow if one of them misses a beat or a note, as will a passionate chef working on cooking a complex meal if it is not cooked to perfection anymore. 
  • Concentration on the task at hand: When in flow, we will focus exclusively on the chosen task, forgetting all the unpleasant aspects of life. This means that we life in the instant, and don’t worry about the time before, and the time to come.  For instance, a musician playing in a band, while her mind is wandering to marital troubles and her upcoming concert tour will not get into flow.
  • The paradox of control: By this Csikszentmihalyi means that we feel in control of our own destiny and do not worry about failure. To employ again the image of the juggler, the juggler needs to stop worrying about missing to catch a ball, and concentrate his mind on catching the balls. Or taking the image of the rock climber, the climber needs to stop worrying about falling down the cliff, and single-mindedly focus on the climb ahead and the next grip in the rocks. As Csikszentmihalyi says, almost any enjoyable activity can become addictive, leading to enjoyable activities such as online games having negative aspects by being glued to the screen for days at a time, with adverse consequences for the health of the gamer.
  • The loss of self-consciousness: When an activity leads to flow, the affected individuals forget about past and future, including their own self. Because the full attention of individuals is focused on the present flow task, they have no attention left to focus on themselves. As the focus on one’s own self is normally a big worry and distraction, this is an essential part of increasing the enjoyment of flow.
  • The transformation of time: In the flow state, time runs differently from the normal state. Time might come to a stop for a jazz musician while jamming, or time might fly for a passionate sailor sailing for hours on a beautiful day.
  • The autotelic experience: To describe the intrinsic motivation of people to engage in a flow experience, Csikszentmihalyi uses the expression “autotelic”, Greek from “auto” meaning “self” and “telos” meaning “goal”. People engage in flow activities not because they are paid or ordered to do them, but because they honestly and intrinsically enjoy them. Whether it is an open-source programmer developing an addition to the Linux operating system, or a painter drawing a painting, they do it not for monetary reward, but because they genuinely enjoy what they are doing.
Besides studying flow as a psychological phenomenon, it can also be analyzed and tracked on the physical level, measuring brain waves, and the chemical process probing hormone production in the human body.
What happens in the brain when an individuum is in flow. Measuring the brainwaves of computer gamers in flow through an EEG found increased alpha and beta brainwave activity. Most prominent was the increase in alpha brainwave activity, which is associated with quietly flowing thoughts, meditation, and a relaxed state of mind. Depending on the task, also an increase in beta brainwave activity was found, indicating that the observed individuals were engaged in a cognitive task, alert, interacting with the outside world, involved in problem solving, decision making, and judgement.
On the hormonal level, a cocktail of hormones such as cortisone, oxytocin, dopamine, anandamide, endorphin, and serotonin influence our perception and experience when reaching the flow state. Playing educational computer games leads to a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. The same happens when a choir is singing together. Singing together also increases the level of oxytocin in the blood. Oxytocin is the happiness hormone, originally associated with mothers when giving birth to increase bonding with their babies, an increase in oxytocin levels in the blood has also been found to lead to increased trust and social bonding. Just listening to relaxing music will already increase oxytocin levels. 
Dopamine is commonly known as the “pleasure hormone”, it is released as a reward when having positive thoughts and experiences, its positive effects can lead to becoming addicted to pleasure producing sources such as food, sex, or drugs. Researchers found that people with more dopamine receptors in their brain are more prone to experiencing flow. Anandamide is the joy hormone, it is for instance ingested when eating chocolate, as the cacao bean contains small amounts of it. Anandamide concentration in the blood increases after strenuous exercise such as a long bike ride, potentially increasing the feeling of “bliss” and joy. Similarly, endorphin creates “runners high” after a marathon, helping the runner to ignore pain and feel elated. Norepinephrine release mobilizes the body for action, it reaches its highest level in so-called “fight or flight” situations, increasing heart rate and blood flow, and triggering the release of glucose into the blood. Norepinephrine and dopamine also help people pay attention and focus on a task. Serotonin is essential for regulating emotions and sleep and wake patterns. People with higher levels of serotonin are less impulsive and show less anxiety and depression. There is thus a mix of hormones playing together in triggering the flow state of an individual.


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