Positive psychology deviates from the prevailing model of categorization and treatment of human pathology by focusing inquiry on describing positive human experiences, such as optimism, well-being, hope, happiness, passion, and creativity. By understanding these aspects of human experience, positive psychology aims to inform the advancement and development of healthy individuals, families, and communities (Snyder, 2002).
Csikszentmihalyi created the theory of flow in the 1970s while attempting to develop a better understanding of the age-old question of when people feel the happiest (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). His research on this topic led him to conclude that happiness is largely dependent on how people interpret the events of their lives. Happiness is not the result of external forces but of internal forces. Therefore, he contends that happiness can be cultivated and developed by learning to control inner experience. His research findings indicate that people who are able to control their inner experience are best able to determine the quality of their lives (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Csikszentmihalyi’s research examines the qualities of experience that lead to happiness and identifies conditions of optimal experience, which he defines as “flow.” The mental state of flow is defined as a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. In this mental state, the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The qualities of optimal experience are described as “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3). These moments occur when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3). Thus, optimal experience is something, that is created or made to happen by an individual. Examples of people being in a state of flow include surgeons performing surgery, rock climbers scaling a mountain, or musicians performing a difficult piece of music.
Csikszentmihalyi’s studies found that every flow activity provided a sense of discovery engendering a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. In this mental state, the person was pushed to higher levels of performance leading to previously undreamed-of states , of consciousness. The result of this experience meant that the self was transformed into a more complex entity.
Two of the most theoretically important dimensions of the experience are challenges and skills as represented on the two in the figure below. The diagram demonstrates that when a person is engaging in a new task his or her skill level will be low and the challenge needed to engage the person will also be low for flow to occur. However, as the person’s skill level increases the level of challenge will need to increase in order for the person to maintain a sense of flow. Conditions of flow will occur when there is a balance between the level of challenge and the required skill. Otherwise, when the level of challenge exceeds a person’s skill level then anxiety may occur. Conversely, when the skill level exceeds the level of challenge then boredom may occur.
The relationship between challenge level and skill level is the second of eight conditions that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as making up the flow experience, These conditions are: 1) clear goals and immediate feedback; 2) equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill; 3) merging of action and awareness; 4) focused concentration; 5) sense of potential control; 6) loss of self-consciousness; 7) altered sense of time; and 8) experience becoming autotelic or self-rewarding (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993).
(Fisher, 2005, p. 153)