The flow experience is a state of complete involvement in an activity that requires complete concentration (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).
Flow is characterised by the matching of high environmental challenges with equally high levels of personal skills, the merging of action and awareness, the loss of reflexive self-consciousness, a sense of control and a distortion of temporal experiences (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005).
How Flow Encourages Personal Growth
Activities that produce flow experiences are intrinsically motivating and as a result they are valuable in that they produce a state of being that is an end to itself. Furthermore they are also hypothesised to allow an individual to flourish and function at their best (Larson, 1988).
Due to the rewarding nature of flow experiences, the activities that result in flow tend to be preferentially replicated (Csikszentmihalyi & Massimini, 1985) which impacts upon an individual’s life theme.
Life themes are described as a set of activities, interests and goals that a person preferentially selects and develops in his/her life (Csikszentmihalyi & Beattie, 1979 cited in Delle Fave, Bassi & Massimini, 2003).
The development of flow inducing activities involves increasing the skills required and the challenge set by the activity. From this perspective, it can be seen that flow encourages personal growth and increases complexity of behaviours (Massimini & Delle Fave, 2000).
Adolescents and Positive Psychology
Psychology ‘as-usual’ tends to view adolescents as problematic, with traditional psychological research on adolescents focusing on topics such as teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence, suicide, eating disorders and academic difficulties, (Rich, 2003). Positive psychology holds an alternative view of adolescents; indeed most teenagers will be good and not turn out to be delinquents, addicts or dropouts (Lerner & Israeloff, 2007).
Although less than 10% of families with adolescents experience serious relationship difficulties (Holmbeck, 1996, cited in Hines & Paulson, 1996) the storm and stress view of adolescence has prevailed since Hall (1904) introduced it just over one-hundred years ago. Research has subdivided adolescent storm and stress into three unique areas:
- parent-adolescent conflict
- educational attainment
- risk-taking behaviours (Hines & Paulson, 2006).
This essay aims to examine the beneficial effects that flow experiences bring adolescents in these three domains.
Many research studies have found that flow is correlated with beneficial outcomes in adolescents such as increased concentration, enjoyment, happiness, strength, motivation, self esteem, optimism and future-mindedness. These findings occur even when confounding variables such as socio-economic status, academic grades and ethnic background are controlled for (Hektner & Asakawa, 2000).
Furthermore research shows that adolescents who spend more time in flow are happier, more cheerful, friendlier and more sociable (Massimini & Carli, 1988). Flow is also highly associated with intrinsic motivation and enjoyment in adolescents (Hektner & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).
However the nature of the majority of these studies is such that we cannot imply causality. Therefore, either increasing the amount of flow experienced makes people feel happier and more satisfied in life, or happier individuals are simply able to find opportunities to experience flow more frequently (Lefevre, 1988).
Furthermore, it may be the experience of ‘losing oneself’ rather than the flow activity that increases happiness (Smith, 2000, p. 1162). Research findings suggest that the less people focus on themselves the happier they are (Nolen-Hoeksema & Davis, 1999) so it is certainly possible that this aspect of the flow experience may lead to greater happiness, however further research is required to fully understand this issue.
Flow has also been found to be negatively associated with factors such as pessimism (Hektner & Asakawa, 2000). Interestingly Lyubomirsky & Nolen-Hoeksma (1995) have found that dysphoric participants who ruminated, (focused attention on the self) were more pessimistic and so it may be their inability to lose themselves that leads to lower levels of flow experiences.
Further research is required to test this process, however initial findings reveal that bored students have significantly higher levels of pessimism than their interested peers, although this research did not directly measure flow experiences (Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). Adolescents who experience few flow states also tend to be more bored, less involved, less enthusiastic and less excited (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) although the same issue of causality applies here also.
The traditional view of adolescence portrays the parent-child bond as being fraught with conflict and tensions; however research shows that in most cases this isn’t so. The majority of conflicts that arise between parents and teenagers are about mundane issues, such as untidiness, music, clothing or curfews, not fundamental values or ethics (Carr, 2007). Rathunde (1997) has studied the occurrence of flow in parents and adolescents during conversations about issues that affect families, such as curfews.
He found that family communication complexity, (which is defined as interaction characterised jointly by integrating and differentiating responses) was associated with family member’s levels of interest and flow. This study however did not examine the effects on the adolescent-parent relationship that flow experienced whilst interacting with family members may have had.
Future research should aim to identify if high flow adolescents have more harmonious relationships with their parents than adolescents who do not experience flow whilst engaging with their families.
Csikszentmihalyi (1999) has examined the frequency of flow experiences in adolescents and found that affluent teens experienced flow less frequently. This was hypothesised to be due to the fact that although they have more material possessions they spend less time with their parents, and in the time they do spend with them they engage in less interesting activities than their less wealthy friends.
Research into adolescent development within the family is increasingly suggesting that adolescents who receive both support and challenge from their parents develop much more successfully in terms of their independence and individuality. Rathunde (1996) has further suggested that autotelic personalities, (which Csikszentmihalyi (1975) defines as a person who is able to easily enter flow and who enjoys activities for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve an external goal, such as money) are most strongly fostered in family environments that he describes as ‘complex’, where support and challenge are concurrently provided.
This research also found that talented students from ‘complex’ families experienced more interest and flow in school activities, spent more time in high-challenge, high-skill situations and less time in low-challenge, low-skill situations. They also felt more in control of their actions, better about themselves generally and reported more positive experiences in productive activities such as studying (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005).
Research has also suggested that these family environments are beneficial in other respects, such as higher academic achievement (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991). Further research now needs to focus on how to foster complex families, as they clearly have vast benefits for their teenage members.
Adolescents spend the majority of their time in compulsory education and so the occurrence of flow within the school setting is perhaps the most important area for researchers to focus on. Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen (1993) have found that for the majority of teens, school is a dull and uninspiring place to be.
In addition boredom is so commonplace that most teens consider it a normal part of their development. However, for those students who do engage with education, the benefits are great. For example, a number of researchers have reported that students who experience high levels of flow have higher levels of commitment to their education and higher achievement rates than their low flow peers (Carli, Delle Fave & Massimini, 1988, Mayers, 1978 cited in Carli, Delle Fave & Massimini, 1988 and Nakamura, 1988).
While highly talented students who had an autotelic personality had a more positive view of their lives, this was especially true when they were engaged in productive activities such as studying or school work (Adlai-Gail, 1994, cited in Csikszentmihalyi & Schneider, 1994; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen, 1993; Hektner, 1996 cited in Csikszentmihalyi & Schneider, 1996).
Finally research shows that the amount of flow experienced during an academic course was a better predictor of success than measures of aptitude. However, what is not clear from these studies is whether the beneficial outcomes are due to the flow experienced whilst engaged in academic activities or the tendency for flow activities to become preferentially replicated, meaning that the autotelic adolescents engage in more schoolwork because they find it intrinsically rewarding.
Hektner & Asakawa (2000) discovered that high-flow students spend on average seven hours more per week engaged in productive activities than low flow students, furthermore high-flow students also spend more time engaged in schoolwork and homework and less time watching television. Further research is required to distinguish whether it is the flow experience that leads to higher grades or the amount of time spent doing schoolwork.
School related activities were found to create the most flow in teenagers (Hektner & Asakawa, 2000). If, however, we are to actively create a learning environment that is conducive to flow experiences then it is beneficial to examine the types of learning that are most likely to lead to flow. Shernoff, Knauth & Markis (2000) found that exams, individual and group work all produced above average levels of flow, whereas listening to the teachers give presentations and watching educational videos provided few opportunities for flow.
Interestingly, Delle Fave & Massimini (2003) found that only 12.5% of teachers sampled reported experiencing flow whilst at work, which begs the question if the majority of teachers are not engaged and interested whilst teaching, how can we expect the pupils to be? Perhaps one possible way of increasing the flow experiences of students is to enable the teachers to teach materials that inspire and challenge them, as clearly teachers cannot gain flow from simply repeating information provided on the curriculum that they have no input in creating.
It must be noted however that the above study used a very small sample of Italian teachers and so the results cannot be generalised to all Italian teachers or teachers in other nations. Further research is obviously required to determine how the flow experiences of teachers can be increased whilst they are in the classroom.
Research studies have also uncovered the scholastic subjects that lead to the highest levels of flow experience. Generally non-academic courses such as vocational courses, computer science and art have the highest levels of flow. In academic subjects mathematics had the highest levels, whilst subjects such as English and science have much lower levels of flow. History is consistently found to be the least flow inducing subject (Shernoff, Knauth & Markris, 2000).
Future research should aim to confirm to the validity of these findings and assess which aspects of these subjects lead to flow or apathy, with the view to alter the curriculum to create more opportunities for engagement/flow as this is likely to lead to higher levels of achievement and higher levels of wellbeing in the adolescent population.
Flow can also be experienced in activities that although enjoyable in the present time, detract from long-term fulfilment. Flow activities can be destructive, addictive and wasteful. Juvenile crimes are not thought to be a direct result of deprivation, rather teens who are bored and frustrated may turn to these activities if other opportunities for flow are limited (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).
Boredom-prone youth are attracted to extreme forms of sensation seeking and anti-social behaviours such as burglary or vandalism (Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) as well as alcoholism and substance abuse (Zuckerman, 1979 cited in Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). Sato (1988) has extensively studied Japanese motorcycle gangs who partake in large scale drag races.
This activity is highly illegal and dangerous, (its name Bosozuku means violent-driving tribe) yet it remains highly popular with the youth of Kyoto. Common reasons cited for the participation of adolescents in this activity are psychological strains such as frustration or feelings of inferiority and so participation becomes an outlet for these emotions.
However, Sato (1988) has noted that the experience of taking part in these motorcycle gang races is akin to the flow states Csikszentmihalyi (1999) describes. For example, even though the drivers put themselves in considerable danger and many accidents and even deaths result from these races, each year the participants report feelings of competence and control, (which is similar to the flow experiences reported by Delle Fave, Bassi & Massimini (2003) in high-altitude rock climbers).
The main difference noted between the flow experienced in these motorcycle races and other forms of flow is that the development of skills and occurrence of intellectual challenges is much lower and as a result, few youths continue engaging in this activity past the age of 20 (Sato, 1988).
Interestingly apart from the above study the overwhelming majority of flow research focuses on positive flow states such as schooling, games and sports, while little research examines flow in socially undesirable activities such as crime. Furthermore very little is known about the processes that lead one youth into positive flow states while another engages in dangerous and illegal flow activities.
In conclusion the current literature provides much evidence to suggest that engaging in activities that produce flow offers many beneficial outcomes for the adolescent population, including increased concentration, happiness, strength, motivation, self esteem, optimism, future mindedness, cheerfulness, friendliness, sociability, intrinsic motivation, enjoyment, interest in family communication, control, positive experiences, commitment to education and academic achievement.
However, there are many issues that still require clarification. Firstly the nature of many of the studies cited means that we cannot imply causation and so further replication research should aim to use techniques that allow the direction of the relationships to be established.
Research into flow within families does not indicate whether the occurrence of flow is associated with harmonious family relationships, and it does not indicate how the development of complex families occurs. Researchers should aim to shed light on these issues. Within the educational setting, it remains unclear as to whether increased academic attainment is due to the flow experience or the time spent on the activity, which is caused by the preferential replication of flow activities.
Research also suggests that the flow experiences of teachers are low whilst they are in the classroom and researchers should aim to replicate this research and establish ways of increasing teacher and/or pupil flow. Work also needs to be carried out to distinguish which aspects of scholastic subjects and/or teaching methods result in higher levels of flow so that teaching curriculums can be designed to create optimal opportunities for flow.
Finally research should aim to understand the flow experiences of youths who participate in socially undesirable activities and unravel the mechanisms that lead adolescents to engage in behaviours that are ultimately detrimental.
Adlai-Gail, W.S. (1994). Exploring Autotelic personality. Ph.D. diss., Univeristy of Chicago. Cited in M. Csikszentmihalyi. & B. Schneider. (Eds.) Becoming Adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work. Basic books, New York.
Carli, M., Delle Fave., & Massimini, F. (1988). The quality of experience in the flow channels: Comparison of Italian and U.S. students. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp.288-306). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Carr, A. (2007). Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and human strengths. Routledge, London.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of play in work and games. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Beattie, O. (1979). Life themes: A theoretical and empirical exploration of their origins and effects. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 19, 45-63. Cited in Delle Fave, A., Bassi, M., & Massimini, F. (2003). Quality of experience and risk perception in high-altitude rock climbing. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 82-98.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Massimini, F. (1985). On the psychological selection of bio-cultural information. New Ideas in psychology, 3, 115-138.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented Teenagers: The roots of Success and Failure. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Delle Fave, A., Bassi, M. & Massimini, F. (2003). Quality of Experience and Risk Perception in High-Altitude Rock Climbing. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 82-98.
Hall, G.S. (1904). Adolescence. New York: Appleton.
Hektner, J.M. (1996). Exploring Optimal Personality Development: A longitudinal Study of Adolescents. Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago. In M. Csikszentmihalyi. & B. Schneider. (Eds.) Becoming Adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work. Basic books, New York.
Hektner, J.M. & Asakawa, K. (2000). Learning to like challenges. In M.Csikszentmihalyi. & B. Schneider. (Eds.) Becoming Adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work (pp. 95-112). Basic books, New York.
Hektner, J.M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). A longitudinal exploration of flow an intrinsic motivation in adolescents. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American education research association, New York. Alfred Sloan Foundation.
Hines, A.R. & Paulson, S.E. (2006). Parents and teachers perceptions of adolescent storm and stress: Relations with parenting and teaching styles. Adolescence, 41, 164, 597-614.
Holmbeck, G.N. (1996). A model of family relational transformations during the transition to adolescence: Parent-Adolescent conflict and adaptation. Cited in A.R. Hines. & S.E. Paulson. Parents and teachers perceptions of adolescent storm and stress: Relations with parenting and teaching styles. Adolescence, 41, 164, 597-614.
Hunter, J.P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The positive psychology of interested adolescents. Journal of youth and adolescence, 32, 1, 27-35.
Lamborn, S., Mounts, N., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62, 1049-1065.
Larson, R. (1988). Flow and Writing. In Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I.S. (Eds.). Optimal experience Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 150-171). Cambridge, Cambridge university press.
Lefevre, F. (1988). Flow and the quality of experience during work and leisure. In M. Csikszentmihalyi, & I.S. Csikszentmihalyi, (Eds.), Optimal Experience Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp.307-318).Cambridge University Press.
Lerner, R.M., & Israeloff, R. (2007). The Good Teen: Rescuing Adolescence from the Myths of the Storm and Stress Years. Crown Publishing Group, New York.
Lyubomirsky, S. & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1995). Effects of self-focused rumination on negative thinking and interpersonal problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1, 176-190.
Massimini, F. & Carli, M. (1988). The systematic assessment of flow in daily experience. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.). Optimal Experience, (pp. 266-287). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Massimini, F., & Delle Fave, A. (2000). Individual development in a bio-cultural perspective. American Psychologist, 55, 24-33.
Mayers, P. (1978). Flow in Adolescents and its relation to the school experience. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago. In Carli, M., Delle Fave., & Massimini, F. (1988). The quality of experience in the flow channels: Comparison of Italian and U.S. students. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp.288-306). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Nakamura, J. (1988). Optimal experiences and the uses of talent. In M.Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp.319-326). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). The Concept of Flow. In Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S. (Eds.). Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp.89-105). Oxford University press, New York.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Davis, C.G. (1999). “Thanks for sharing that”: Ruminators and their social support networks. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 801-814.
Rathunde, K. (1996). Family context and talented adolescent’s optimal experience in school-related activities. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 6, 605-628.
Rathunde, K. (1997). Parent-Adolescent interaction and optimal experience. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 26, 6, 669-689.
Sato, I. (1988). Bosozoku: flow in Japanese motorcycle gangs. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I.S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (PP.92-117). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Shernoff, D. Knauth, S. & Markis, E. (2000). The quality of classroom experiences. In M. Csikszentmihalyi. & B. Schneider. (Eds.) Becoming Adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work (pp. 141-164). Basic books, New York.
Smith, T.B. (2000). Cultural values and happiness. American Psychologist, 55, 10, 1162.
Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation Seeking. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ. Cited in Hunter, J.P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The positive psychology of interested adolescents. Journal of youth and adolescence, 32, 1, 27-35.