Another dimension of positive psychology and its relevance to education


Positive psychology is making inroads into current educational thinking. Here is one aspect- Reaching a state of Flow-bear with me!

Flow in psychology’ is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

Part psychological study, part self-help book, Finding Flow is a prescriptive guide that helps us reclaim ownership of our lives.  The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his professional life to the study of happiness and how we can attain it.

Based on a far-reaching study of thousands of individuals, Finding Flow contends that we often walk through our days unaware and out of touch with our emotional lives. He describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. Our inattention makes us constantly bounce between two extremes: during much of the day we live filled with the anxiety and pressures of our work and obligations, while during our leisure moments, we tend to live in passive boredom. So, the  key, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is to challenge ourselves with tasks requiring a high degree of skill and commitment. So at its most simple level-instead of watching television, for example  play the piano. Transform a routine task by taking a different approach. In short, learn the joy of complete engagement. Though they appear simple, the lessons in Finding Flow are life-altering.

Flow first came to Csikszentmihalyi’s attention while he was studying artists for his postgraduate thesis. As they worked the artists seemed to go into a trance-like state. To his surprise he found that the finished product was less important to them than the process of doing the work itself. External rewards were less important than intrinsic pleasure, an observation that went against the grain of psychological thinking at the time.


According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur:


Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.


Strong concentration and focused attention.


The activity is intrinsically rewarding.


Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.


Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.


Immediate feedback.


Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.


Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.


Lack of awareness of physical needs.


Complete focus on the activity itself.


So what relevance does this have for education? Csíkszentmihályi has suggested that overlearning a skill or concept can help people experience flow. Another critical concept in his theory is the idea of slightly extending oneself beyond one’s current ability level. This slight stretching of one’s current skills can help the individual experience flow. Flow can lead to improved performance too. Researchers have found that flow can enhance performance in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity. Flow can also lead to further learning and skill development. Because the act of achieving flow indicates a strong mastery of a certain skill, the individual must continually seek new challenges and information in order to maintain this state.


In the late 1980s Csikszentmihalyi and several colleagues undertook a longitudinal survey of over 200 talented teenagers to discover why some are able to develop their talents while others give up. One of their principal findings, published in Talented Teens – The Roots of Success and Failure was that ‘flow was the strongest predictor of subjective engagement and how far the student progressed in the school’s curriculum in his or her talent’.


The authors suggest three ‘promising steps for promoting optimal experience in the classroom’:


1. The most influential teachers were found to be those who always continue to nurture their interest in their subjects and do not take their ability to convey that enthusiasm for granted. Learning was found to flourish where the cultivation of passionate interest was a primary educational goal.


2. Attention should be paid to ‘conditions that enhance the experience of maximum rewards’. Everything should be done to minimise the impact of rules, exams and procedures and to focus on the inherent satisfaction of learning. (In a more recent interview, Csikszentmihalyi has stated that although it makes some sense to work on students’ weaknesses, it makes even more sense to work on their strengths, ‘Because once someone has developed strengths, then everything else becomes easier.’)


3. Teachers must read the shifting needs of learners. The flow state is not a static one: once a skill has been mastered it is necessary to add more complexity if the student is not to become bored – there must always be a close fit between challenges and skills. The teacher’s sense of timing and pace, of when to intervene and when to hold back, is therefore crucial. There must be freedom wherever possible for the student to control the process, but teachers must also draw on their experience to channel students’ attention.




Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. In Jacobs, J.E.. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.


Csikszentmihalyi, M (2002), Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Rider, London

Thoughts about Education on www.newhorizons.org


Csikszentmihalyi, M, Rathunde, K, and Whalen, S (1997), Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Scherer, M (2002), ‘Do students care about learning? A conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’Educational Leadership 60 (1)



  1. Did you also know Patrick, that the computer games industry, and techno-zealots, hijacked Csikszentmihalyi’s work years ago, as a way to justify kids playing computer games as educational? In his book, “What Makes Things Fun to Learn: A Study of Intrinsically Motivating Computer Games,” Thomas Malone distorted Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” by taking as his cue, a very tenuous link between chess and computer games. He reinterpreted the original concept of “flow” as a state in which the players are so engrossed in a game that they lose a normal lucid relationship with the real world in favour of the game’s world. This is a millions miles away from the condition Csikszentmihalyi studied and observed, most often in sportsmen and artists who brought intense physical skill and mental agility to bear on real world activity. But Malone’s idea was seized on the the techno-zealots and Csikszentmihalyi became a clever (and underhand) way of trying to persuade people kids playing computer games was a valid educational activity.

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