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Challenge-Skills and Mindfulness: An Exploration of the Conundrum of Flow Process

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Abstract

The process of flow, a psychological state that seems to occur during optimal human experience, is currently unclear. This exploratory study examines how flow begins and what happens during and after a flow experience. A phenomenological approach was taken to examine the flow experiences of an artist, a musician, and a horticulturist. Participants kept journals and participated in semi-structured interviews. The results suggest that two phenomena, “challenge-skills” and “mindfulness,” were identified as being “flow” experiences. Challenge-skills and mindfulness had some common features. Both involved living in the present moment, not worrying, and performing activities because they were intrinsically rewarding. They were distinctly different experiences in regard to the effort involved, the perception of time, and the consequences of the experience. Understanding the process of challenge-skills and mindfulness may have implications for our understanding of the relationship between occupation, consciousness, and health and for occupational therapy practice.
Winter 2006, Volume 26, Number 1 1
Challenge-Skills and Mindfulness: An
Exploration of the Conundrum of Flow
Process
Jonathan J. Wright, Gaynor Sadla, Graham Stew
Key words: fl ow, optimal experience, occupation
ABSTRACT
The process of flow, a psychological state that seems to occur during optimal human experi-
ence, is currently unclear. This exploratory study examines how flow begins and what happens
during and after a flow experience. A phenomenological approach was taken to examine the
flow experiences of an artist, a musician, and a horticulturist. Participants kept journals and
participated in semi-structured interviews. The results suggest that two phenomena, “chal-
lenge-skills” and “mindfulness,” were identified as being “flow” experiences. Challenge-skills
and mindfulness had some common features. Both involved living in the present moment, not
worrying, and performing activities because they were intrinsically rewarding. They were
distinctly different experiences in regard to the effort involved, the perception of time, and the
consequences of the experience. Understanding the process of challenge-skills and mindfulness
may have implications for our understanding of the relationship between occupation, con-
sciousness, and health and for occupational therapy practice.
(AQ1)Jonathan J. Wright, MSc, DipCOT, PGCE, ILTM, is Course Leader, MSc Health through Occupation; Gaynor Sadla,
PhD, PGDipTCDHE, DipOccThy, is Head, Division of Occupational Therapy; and Graham Stew, DPhil, MA(Ed.), ASCE, Cert. Ed,
RMN, RNT, RGN, DipN, ILTM, is , School of Health Professions, University of Brighton, East Sussex, United Kingdom.
Accepted for publication April 28, 2005.
Address correspondence to Jonathan J. Wright at j.wright@brighton.ac.uk.
The relationship between our occupations and
our health is extremely complex. It is possible
that by focusing research on how occupations
can improve our health, new knowledge may be
found that could benefit everyone. One way in which
our occupations may influence our health is through
the experience of “flow,” which has been previously
identified and considered to be the state in which
a person reaches the highest level of well-being
(Csikszentmihalyi & Mei-Ha Wong, 1991). Flow
seems to be a subjective, psychological state that
occurs when an individual becomes so immersed
in an occupation that he or she forgets everything
except what he or she is doing. Individuals who
get into flow report finding it so enjoyable that
they repeat the experience just because they want
to (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). In previous literature,
flow appears to be associated with happiness, self-
esteem, role satisfaction, work productivity, and
satisfaction with life (Emerson, 1998).
It has been proposed that the fl ow experience has
several characteristics. Jackson and Csikszentmih-
alyi (1999) stated that the most important character-
istic is the balance between the challenge of the oc-
cupation and the skills of the individual. According
to this theory, to experience fl ow individuals have
to be doing something suffi ciently challenging that
they make full use of the skills they possess. Indi-
viduals who have been in fl ow report a feeling of
being as one with the movements they are making;
they perceive a merging of action and awareness.
Individuals who experience fl ow have clear goals
that they want to achieve and receive unambiguous
feedback as to how they are getting on. The activity
requires concentration, involving a high level of at-
tention.
OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health
2
Flow seems to involve becoming so absorbed in the
occupation that an individual loses self-conscious-
ness, as well as any worries or negative thoughts.
When experiencing fl ow, individuals are reported to
perceive a sense of control over what they are do-
ing. The perception of time is transformed, so that
what may take hours feels like it has been minutes.
However, occasionally individuals have reported
perceiving time passing more slowly. Flow is seen
as an “autotelic” experience (i.e., it is one that an in-
dividual would seek for its own sake, for no other
reason than for the enjoyment it brings).
Although fl ow is a phenomenon that has been
studied for approximately 30 years, there are several
issues surrounding the construct of fl ow that remain
problematic from an occupational science or occupa-
tional therapy perspective. It is unclear whether all of
the characteristics of fl ow need to be experienced be-
fore it can be stated that fl ow has occurred, or if cer-
tain characteristics are more important than others.
It is also unknown whether certain fl ow characteris-
tics are also elements of other, similar psychological
states. Additionally, although it seems that fl ow is
a phenomenon that many individuals can recognize
as having experienced in their life, because it occurs
within human consciousness it remains diffi cult to
measure (Wright, 2004). Consequently, interviewing
people about their optimal experiences remains the
method of choice when establishing whether clients
have experienced fl ow (Wright, 2004) or when re-
searching what happens during a fl ow experience.
If we knew how a fl ow experience started, occu-
pational therapists might be better able to facilitate
ow experiences in their clients. By knowing what
happens as a consequence of experiencing fl ow, oc-
cupational therapists might be able to accurately pre-
dict the outcome of an occupation and possibly create
ow opportunities to meet specifi c needs of clients.
For example, if fl ow experiences resulted in feelings
of relaxation, an anxious individual may be helped to
discover occupations that can reduce his or her levels
of arousal. Alternatively, an individual experiencing
volitional problems may benefi t from fl ow experienc-
es if they lead to feelings of elation and increase his or
her desire to engage in further activities.
Only one study has previously been conducted
into the fl ow process (Massimini, Csikszentmihalyi,
& Delle Fave, 1988). To address the question, “How
do people from very different cultures describe the
ow experience in terms of its onset, its continua-
tion, and how it feels while it lasts?” Massimini et
al. (1988)(AQ2) purposely chose people from differ-
ent cultures and subcultures as their participants.
The participants came from northern Italy, Arizona
in the United States, and Bangkok, Thailand. The
“Flow Questionnaire” was returned by 636 partici-
pants who reported having fl ow experiences. The
questionnaire consisted of three quotations:
1. My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of
something else. I am totally involved in what I am
doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear
anything. The world seems to be cut off from me.
I am less aware of myself and my problems.
2. My concentration is like breathing. I never think
of it. I am really quite oblivious to my surround-
ings after I really get going. I think that the phone
could ring, and the doorbell could ring, or the
house burn down or something like that. When I
start, I really do shut out the whole world. Once I
stop, I can let it back in again.
3. I am so involved in what I am doing. I don’t see
myself as separate from what I am doing.
Massimini et al. (1988)(AQ2) asked their partici-
pants whether they had experienced anything simi-
lar to what had been described in the quotations. If
they said that they had, it was assumed that those in-
dividuals had experienced fl ow and they were asked
to provide further information regarding the process
itself, including how the experience began, what
kept it going after it has started, and how it felt.
Massimini et al. (1988)(AQ2) concluded that their
results supported fl ow theory because the respon-
dents spontaneously reported what were considered
to be dimensions of fl ow (i.e., the activity itself, con-
centration of attention, the balance between chal-
lenges and skills leading to increased complexity,
clear feedback, and intrinsic motivation).
However, there are several important issues that
this study does not address. The research design,
method, and analysis are unclear. For example, it is
not clear how the respondents were recruited and
what questions were asked other than those speci-
ed above. The results do not identify what was
happening at the time when fl ow was occurring and
the variety of responses from the respondents do not
always appear to support the previous importance
given to the challenge-skills characteristic of fl ow.
For example, Massimini et al. (1988, p. 68) found that
it was the performance of the activity itself that trig-
gered the fl ow experience. The following statements
were given to illustrate this category:
The feeling begins as soon as I start praying. (blind nun
praying)
It starts when the ceremony begins. (Navajo participat-
ing in a traditional ceremony)
Winter 2006, Volume 26, Number 1 3
I don’t have to do anything to get this sensation started.
All I have to do is to get into the water and start mov-
ing. (Turin student swimming)
Each statement mentions the occupation the re-
spondents were involved in, but the question of
what they were doing when fl ow is thought to begin
remains. It appears unlikely that fl ow began when
the challenge of the activity matched the individual’s
skills for two reasons. First, the respondents reported
ow occurring as soon as they began an occupation
(i.e., prior to facing a challenging element of the oc-
cupation or performing a demanding skill). Second,
praying and performing in a traditional ceremony
are not occupations that sit comfortably within the
challenge-skills model of fl ow. This model stipu-
lates that fl ow occurs when an individual perceives
both the challenge of a particular occupation and the
skills necessary for him or her to perform it are high-
er than normal (Massimini & Carli, 1988).
To remain in fl ow, the challenge of an occupation
would have to increase as the skills of the individ-
ual improve or, alternatively, an individual’s skills
would have to improve to meet a more challenging
occupation. Both praying (for a nun) and perform-
ing in a traditional ceremony are likely to be very
familiar occupations. It is unclear whether the re-
spondents did increase the challenge of the activi-
ties to increase the skills that they were using when
performing these occupations. The respondents’ re-
ports of experiencing fl ow as soon as starting to pray
or being aware that the ceremony had begun would
appear to make this unlikely. It appears that partici-
pants thought that fl ow began when they were able
to attend totally to what they were doing, whether it
was praying, participating in a traditional ceremony,
or swimming.
The fi ndings of Massimini et al. (1988)(AQ2)
could indicate that there may be a different phenom-
enon being experienced other than one relying on
the perception of challenges and skills. Of possible
relevance is a growing literature on the importance
of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness in
therapy (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Carson, Carson, Gil,
& Baucom, 2004; Davidson et al., 2003(AQ3); Kabat-
Zinn, 1990; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992; Ramel, Goldin,
Carmona, & McQuaid, 2004; Reibel, Greeson, Brain-
ard, & Rosenzweig, 2001; Teasdale, Segal, Williams,
Soulsby, & Lau, 2000; Williams, Teasdale, Segal, &
Soulsby, 2000) and its relationship with spirituality
(Tolle, 1999).
Tolle (1999) argued that the key to the spiritual
dimension is being in the present or the “Now.”
Tolle believed that individuals engage in danger-
ous activities such as rock climbing because it forces
them into the Now. People who are in the Now are
thought to feel intensely alive, free of time, free of
problems, and free of thinking. This phenomenon
appears to have similarities with the characteristics
of fl ow that have previously highlighted the impor-
tance of challenges and skills within optimal experi-
ences (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Curiously,
rock climbers were one of the groups of individuals
that Csikszentmihalyi (1975) originally interviewed
in his fl ow research. Tolle (1999) pointed out that
people might tend to rely on a potentially danger-
ous activity to reach this psychological state when it
is possible to achieve it by other means.
Tolle also suggested that individuals do not need
to change what they are doing, but how they are
doing it. An individual should pay more attention
to the doing of any activity and remain in the Now,
rather than focus on the result he or she wants to
achieve through the activity. Unfortunately, Tolle’s
work is not based on empirical work and it is dif-
cult at present to establish the extent to which fl ow
experiences are similar to living in the Now.
Flow could be a powerful tool for occupational
therapists. However, it is essential to seek further
evidence about what fl ow is, when and how it might
be used, and what it is likely to achieve. These issues
need further research. Massimini et al. (1988)(AQ2)
have provided some fascinating insights, but weak-
nesses in the research design, method, and analysis
have resulted in the fl ow processes being unclear.
Therefore, the aim of this exploratory study was to
begin to analyze fl ow processes in more depth by ex-
amining how fl ow starts and what happens during
and after a fl ow experience.
Method
Research Question and Design
The research question was: “What are the pro-
cesses of fl ow in the context of the experiences of
an artist, a musician, and a horticulturist?” Because
of the nature of the question and the emphasis on
human experience, a phenomenological approach
was adopted. Phenomenology can be defi ned as the
study of situations “in the everyday world from the
viewpoint of the experiencing person” (Becker, 1992,
p. 39). In this instance, the situation under scrutiny
was the fl ow experience.
Ethics
Ethical approval was obtained from an academic
department after justifying the rationale for the re-
search and procedures, including how participants
were to be informed and confi dentiality main-
tained.
OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health
4
Sample
To begin examining the fl ow process, a purposive
sample of three individuals was used, consisting of
an artist, a musician, and a horticulturist. These in-
dividuals were all known to the research team and
were chosen to participate because it was thought
likely that they would have fl ow experiences due
to the nature of their preferred activities. This was
consistent with the guidance of Becker (1992), who
stated that it was preferable to interview people who
have experience of the phenomenon.
The participants were approached initially by tele-
phone and were informed that the research aimed to
discover how fl ow experiences began and what hap-
pened during and after a fl ow experience. The par-
ticipants were told that fl ow was thought to be an
optimal experience that seemed to happen when an
individual became so absorbed in what he or she was
doing that he or she lost track of time and forgot ev-
erything else apart from what he or she was focusing
on at that particular moment. The participants were
asked whether they would be interested in participat-
ing and when they had agreed in principle, a mutu-
ally convenient time was arranged to meet and begin
the fi rst part of the data collection, keeping a journal.
Meetings took place at the participants’ con-
venience, either in their homes or at their place of
work. The information previously given during the
telephone conversation was reiterated to the partici-
pants at the fi rst meeting and they were also given
this information in writing. Any questions they had
about the research were addressed and consent
forms were signed.
Procedure
Part 1. The fi rst part of the method involved the
participants maintaining a journal of their fl ow experi-
ences during a 2-week period. The participants were
given a choice whether to keep a written journal or a
taped journal using a hand-held tape recorder. The par-
ticipants were invited to respond to three questions:
• How did you get into fl ow?
• What was the fl ow experience like?
• How/why did it stop?
The participants were also given some prompts
within each question to consider the place they were
in, who they were with, their thoughts, their feelings,
and what they were doing. They were also asked to
consider the duration of the fl ow experience and
whether it had any effects.
The journals were then transcribed so that the
transcriptions could be used as an aide memoir for
participants in Part 2 of the study.
Part 2. Semi-structured interviews were con-
ducted with each participant approximately 1 week
following the end of the journal period in an envi-
ronment most convenient to them. The interviews
were audiotaped. The participants were informed
that the purpose of the interview was to help clarify
the descriptions they had given of their fl ow experi-
ences in the journals and to explore the fl ow process
in any experiences they had had subsequently. The
participants were reminded that the interviewer was
primarily interested in how fl ow starts, what hap-
pens during a fl ow experience, and what happens
after it. The interviewer then asked the participants
to describe a fl ow experience they had had since the
journal period began. Subsequent questions were
designed to clarify the participants’ experience of
each aspect of the fl ow process.
Analysis
The analysis was largely based on the work of
Becker (1992) with some modifi cation. The interviews
were analyzed separately in chronological order. A
descriptive portrayal was conducted in which the
participants’ words were used as much as possible.
The interviews were transcribed in turn and initial
coding took place from each transcript. The codes in
the form of words or short phrases were then writ-
ten onto cards. Cards were placed together if they
were considered to be similar in their meaning and
meaning units were created. Editing occurred at this
stage if it was considered that the quotation from a
participant fi t better within another meaning unit.
Throughout this process, consideration was given to
how the different parts of the phenomenon were in-
terrelated and how the pieces went together to make
one phenomenon. At this stage, an overall portrait of
the phenomenon was written in the third person for
each participant in turn.
The structural description of the phenomenon was
constructed by identifying and reordering common
themes from the three portraits using mind maps. At
this stage, the lifeworlds of the participants were left
behind and energy was put into describing the es-
sential qualities of the phenomenon itself. Although
the language of the participants was included within
the structural description, other terminology related
to occupational science was used.
Results
All three participants identifi ed a phenomenon
that has been termed a challenge-skills experience
(i.e., when there was a balance between what each
participant perceived to be a challenging activity
Winter 2006, Volume 26, Number 1 5
and his or her perceived level of skill) (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1992). The artist cited examples of fl ow expe-
riences when painting, and the musician when she
was conducting a choir. The horticulturist had no
experiences of fl ow while working within horticul-
ture during the period of the study, but experienced
challenge-skills when writing a letter.
Challenge-Skills Experiences
Getting into a Challenge-Skills Flow Experience.
It was important for the participants to be in an en-
vironment where there were no distractions or inter-
ruptions:
The ideal situation is being able to be in a situation, in
an environment which has no distractions and no wor-
ries about it. (Artist)
The participants reported that they had felt relaxed
prior to the fl ow experience. They had become re-
laxed by making changes to their environment and
themselves:
When I start to work I do need to clear everything, have
everything tidy if I can. . . . And then I need to relax,
so either by sitting down relaxing or by having a few
glasses of wine to relax, which is invariably the case,
so I can then unwind and just feel physically more re-
laxed. (Artist)
So I’d have a shower and get changed into different
clothes, that was also part of it. (Musician)
The participants reported making a conscious
decision to start what they were doing, and other
thoughts gradually left them as they became very
concentrated and focused on their occupation:
And when I start to work. . .all the things that are go-
ing on in my mind, everyday things, all start to rattle
around. . . . And gradually, as I get more involved,
these [thoughts] start to go and they lack importance.
(Artist)
Being in a Challenge-Skills Flow Experience. Par-
ticipants were so immersed in what they were doing
that they were no longer preoccupied with time: “I
wasn’t aware of time at all [during fl ow]” (Musi-
cian). There was effort involved in achieving what
they wanted to do. Participants also had a clear idea
about what they wished to achieve: “I’ve got a clear
picture in my head of the type of result that I want”
(Artist).
When they began to receive positive feedback
from what they were doing, the occupation became
pleasurable and any worries they may have been
having were forgotten:
It then [after concentrating on what the paints are do-
ing] starts to become a pleasurable experience because
I’m actually eliminating anything from the day to day
problems, so they’ve gone. (Artist)
After a Challenge-Skills Flow Experience. The
ow experience ended when the occupation fi n-
ished. The horticulturist noted, “I think I thought,
‘Oh, that’s a good place to stop’.”
Participants felt joy and elation at what they had
achieved:
And that is a huge feeling of elation when that hap-
pens. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does hap-
pen. . .it’s just fantastic. (Artist)
There was a sense that time had passed very quick-
ly:
But I mean suddenly it was twenty to nine. So a best
part of an hour had gone, hadn’t it? We started the
rehearsal just after half past seven and suddenly it’s
twenty to nine. (Musician)
The experience was stimulating, and one of the
participants became aware of his heart beating faster
than usual:
I was completely absorbed by it, but when I’d fi nished
writing the letter. . .I could feel that my heart was beat-
ing quite fast though, quite. . .stimulated by the letter if
you like. (Horticulturist)
Participants felt increased levels of motivation. The
artist said, “And quite often you just want to keep
going and going.”
The artist felt more able to cope with possible
stressors within his life: “If anything negative hap-
pened whilst you still had that feeling. . .you can just
cope with it a lot better. Much better.” How long the
positive feelings last depended on the nature and
quantity of perceived events following the end of the
ow experience: “It depends on how many negative
factors come in to play and how big they are.”
Mindfulness Experiences
The horticulturist described experiences that did
not appear to include any particular challenges or
skills, but that he included within his fl ow experi-
ences. The term mindfulness was chosen to represent
this phenomenon because his experiences seemed to
involve a moment-to-moment awareness (Reibel et
al., 2001) or a “tuning in” to present experience (Ka-
malashila, 1996).
He experienced periods of mindfulness when
walking and doing yoga. He was alone in the envi-
ronment where there were no distractions or inter-
ruptions:
OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health
6
They [mindfulness experiences] were all alone really, I
guess. I think [during] the yoga my wife was around but
it was something I was doing on my own. . .
The horticulturist focused attention on a sensa-
tion within him or a sound within the environment,
and by doing this his mind quieted down:
And my mind kind of quieted down and all of a sudden
I could hear all these noises that, you know, two seconds
earlier I couldn’t hear. Birds and the wind in the trees and
the leaves blowing around on the ground.
He was so immersed in what he was doing that he
was no longer preoccupied with time. The experience
ended when his mind came back into consciousness:
“I think my head kicked in and said I’d been here a
long time.” The perception was that time had slowed
down: “At the time everything just really slowed
down almost to a stop, you know.”
Following the experience, the horticulturalist re-
ported several feelings and perceptions:
Just sort of at peace really, at ease. . . . And I felt more re-
laxed. Beyond pleasant. . . . Profound in a sense, I think. I
was awakened to a sort of sense that I hadn’t been open
to all morning.
The positive feelings lasted until he was jolted by
events:
(AQ4)It was OK when I got into the car and started
driving. But when I got into heavy traffi c and having to
negotiate it, it tends to sort of jolt you a bit, doesn’t it?
Discussion
The results from this exploratory study suggest
that Massimini et al.’s (1988)(AQ2) research into
the process of fl ow may have included both chal-
lenge-skills and mindfulness experiences in their
ndings. It might be thought that challenge-skills
and mindfulness are very different, but they seem to
have some common characteristics that could have
led them both to being considered as fl ow experi-
ences in the earlier study. In this study, participants
reported that both challenge-skills and mindfulness
experiences involved living fully in the present mo-
ment, not refl ecting on past memories or spending
time anticipating what may happen in the future. In
both states, time no longer preoccupied them and
they wanted to do what they were doing because it
was rewarding to them, although in different ways.
The lack of clarity surrounding the fl ow construct
may explain why the horticulturist described chal-
lenge-skills and mindfulness experiences in his de-
scription of fl ow. It is possible that common charac-
teristics between different psychological states that
lead to feelings of well-being made it diffi cult for par-
ticipants to discriminate between experiences. Our
ndings and those of Massimini et al. (1988)(AQ2)
suggest that what has been, and to a large extent
remains, unknown is how similar or different the
criteria for a fl ow state are to other similar psycho-
logical states and in what way. Further research is
needed to analyze the different processes involved
in challenge-skills, mindfulness, and possibly other
subjective psychological states to have a greater un-
derstanding of the relationship between occupation,
consciousness, and health.
Within this research the artist, musician, and hor-
ticulturist all identifi ed a challenge-skills experience.
The artist cited examples of fl ow experiences when
painting and the musician when she was conducting
a choir. The horticulturist had no experiences of fl ow
while working within horticulture during the period
of the study, but experienced challenge-skills when
writing a letter. The horticulturist experienced peri-
ods of mindfulness that he also perceived as being
ow when walking and doing yoga.
From the experiences of the artist, musician, and
horticulturist, it would appear that although chal-
lenge-skills and mindfulness do have some simi-
larities, they are distinctly different processes. These
differences seem to manifest themselves in several
ways. For example, within a challenge-skills expe-
rience it appears necessary to be relaxed prior to
performing the occupation. Whether relaxation is
necessary prior to a mindfulness experience remains
unclear. A participant in a challenge-skills experi-
ence strives toward achieving a specifi c goal, but
within mindfulness experiences there appears to be
no goal to strive for. There also could be a difference
between challenge-skills and mindfulness states in
the perception of time.
Mindfulness experiences may lead to a percep-
tion of time slowing down or as being irrelevant,
but challenge-skills experiences seem to result in the
perception that time has passed very quickly.
The consequences of the experiences may also be
very different. A challenge-skills experience appears
to lead to feelings of joy and elation, increased levels
of volition, and a feeling of being more able to cope
with life’s stresses. It may be possible that challenge-
skills experiences are more likely to involve the acti-
vation of the sympathetic nervous system. The horti-
culturist reported feeling relaxed and being at peace
following mindfulness experiences. This response
would be more likely to involve the activation of the
parasympathetic nervous system.
Tolle (1999) believed that people who lived in the
Winter 2006, Volume 26, Number 1 7
Now would feel intensely alive, free of time, free of
problems, and free of thinking. It could be that the
mindfulness experiences described within this study
are examples of the process that Tolle describes. Tolle
proposed that people who tend to rely on dangerous
activities such as rock climbing to attain an optimal
experience could actually achieve the same psycho-
logical state by living in the Now. He assumed that
the psychological states were the same and it was
only the means of attaining the optimal experience
that was different. The fi ndings from our study do
question Tolle’s assumption because it is possible
that, although there may be similarities between the
subjective, psychological states, being in the Now
could be different in several respects to the chal-
lenge-skills experience that Csikszentmihalyi (1975)
described.
For occupational scientists, this research could
perhaps highlight the effect of studying when occu-
pations are performed. Conducting the research in
winter months may have led to the horticulturist not
experiencing fl ow when gardening. The horticultur-
ist explained that this is a less pleasurable time of
year to work in the garden because there are many
practical tasks to be done such as delivering manure.
This research highlights that occupational scientists
need to consider seasonal variations when conduct-
ing research into occupation.
This research may also provide some insight for
therapists who are interested in how occupation
could be used to maximize its therapeutic potential.
To achieve a challenge-skills experience, occupation-
al therapists may need to ensure that clients have
opportunities to feel relaxed prior to the occupation.
It appears that the chosen occupation will need to
be perceived by the client as being challenging and
utilizing their skills fully. Clients will need to have a
clear goal as to what they want to achieve by doing
the occupation and they need to receive clear, unam-
biguous feedback as to how well they are doing. By
facilitating a challenge-skills occupation, the occupa-
tional therapist may be able to observe an increase in
a client’s volition and occupational performance.
On the other hand, for clients to achieve a mind-
fulness state, it would seem that clients would need
to be encouraged to attend to how they perform
their occupations. Emphasis may need to be given to
helping clients perform their occupations mindfully.
This could involve helping individuals to acknowl-
edge their thoughts and feelings as they become
aware of them, but then gently returning their atten-
tion to whatever they are doing. By performing their
occupations in a mindful way, clients may feel more
relaxed and at peace.
Conclusion
This research has begun to resolve uncertainties
in Massimini et al.’s (1988)(AQ2) study and may be
viewed as an exploratory study into the processes of
ow, prior to more extensive research with a wider
variety of participants. A possible explanation for
the variety of experiences found in this study and in
the research by Massimini et al. (1988)(AQ2) is that
they may have inadvertently included both mind-
ful and challenge-skills experiences within fl ow. The
ndings of this research and those of Massimini et
al. (1988)(AQ2) suggest that the construct of fl ow is
still evolving and more research is needed to exam-
ine it in more detail and uncover the extent to which
the characteristics and processes of fl ow are unique
or similar to other subjective, psychological states.
By analyzing the different processes involved in
challenge-skills, mindfulness, and possibly other
similar subjective, psychological states, we will ob-
tain a greater understanding of the relationship be-
tween occupation, consciousness, and health. The
experiences of an artist, musician, and horticulturist
suggest that although challenge-skills and mindful-
ness processes seem to have some notable similari-
ties, there appear to be distinct differences between
the two phenomena that may have implications for
our understanding of how occupation can infl uence
health and for occupational therapy practice. Occu-
pational therapists may need to understand the com-
plexities of how occupation can affect our health so
that occupations can be fully utilized for the benefi t
of our clients. The more we understand challenge-
skills and mindfulness, the more we may be able to
achieve.
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... While Csikszentmihalyi in his writings had delineated in detail the nature of the flow experience viz its nine dimensions, questions remained about the actual process of flow or exactly how and when flow took place (Wright, Sadlo, & Stew, 2006). Emerson (1998 p42) had noted that there were "…very few critiques of flow in the literature", seeming to imply that while researchers had been eager to embrace flow for its uplifting characteristics and conduct research based on its defined nine dimensions, few had sought to question the exact nature of its construct and the process behind the flow experience. ...
... This ambiguity encouraged researchers to try to better understand the how complex flow phenomenon operated (see e.g. Emerson, 1998;Kimiecik & Stein, 1992;Wright et al., 2006;Wright, Sadlo, & Stew, 2007). ...
... Over 40 years after its inception, flow theory has been widely researched and applied in diverse fields (see Csikszentmihalyi, 2009 for more examples), such as computer-based learning and online experiences (Shin, 2006), sports (Jackson & Marsh, 1996), occupational therapy (Wright et al., 2006(Wright et al., , 2007, work environment (Bakkar, 2005), early childhood education (Custodero, 1998(Custodero, , 1999(Custodero, , 2005, knowledge work (Quinn, 2005), theatre (Martin & Cutler, 2002) as well as music (Diaz, 2013;O'Neill, 1999), to give but a few examples. Attempts to better understand the flow phenomenon have resulted in the design of quantitative instruments to 'measure' the person's mental state during flow experiences in a more expedient manner than the prevalent ESM and qualitative methods used by Csikszentmihalyi himself (see e.g. ...
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First articulated by American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, flow theory describes a state of deep involvement in an activity which is valued by the person doing it for its own sake and has an element of challenge. With its strong association with intrinsic motivation and enjoyment, flow can potentially play an important role in the Singapore education system as it embarks on the ‘learn for life’ phase to encourage and cultivate a mentality of lifelong learning in students. Flow is particularly relevant in music education as research had shown that music, being an inherently enjoyable activity, has an affinity with flow. This study therefore sought to examine and understand the flow experiences of Singaporean primary and secondary school students in the context of their school music classroom. The main objectives of the study were twofold: firstly, to determine if Singaporean students experienced flow during their school music classes, and if so, what the nature of their flow experiences were. In addition, the study sought to explore if the flow experiences of students with and without additional music training differed, and if so, how. The findings could then potentially inform practices and strategies to engender flow in the music classroom to realise the synergies between flow and music to improve students’ dispositions towards music learning. The sample was made up of 310 primary five (year 5) students from three primary schools and 100 secondary one (year 7) students from three secondary schools. A mixed method approach was adopted for the study to build a multi-faceted perspective of the students’ flow experiences by triangulating data from different sources. This involved the collection of quantitative data using a questionnaire and qualitative data through focus groups and video observations. The findings showed that the nine dimensions of flow could be mapped to the students’ experiences, indicating that they enjoyed flow-like experiences. Strongly characterised by enjoyment, the students’ experiences were generally positive, although the apparent prominence of some flow dimensions over others appeared to lend credence to the view that there were different nuances of flow and these impacted how students experienced flow. In particular, the relative weakness of challenge-skill balance in the students’ experiences could have resulted in their adopting a ‘relaxed’ attitude towards musical learning, which would not be conducive to cultivating a mindset of lifelong learning in students. The implication was that stronger elements of challenge needed to be planned in the classroom activities in order to bring about students’ musical growth through their enjoyment of the process of continually overcoming musical challenges to develop their intrinsic motivation to want to learn music. There was also a need to enable greater student autonomy and ownership in the music learning process to better facilitate flow.
... There are some common features between mindfulness and flow in that both emphasize focus on the present moment (Wright et al., 2006). Norsworthy et al. (2017) found that flow requires unconscious attention to specific tasks in the present moment. ...
... Without positive emotional support, creativity can hardly be maintained (Csikszentmihalyi, 2015). Mindfulness promotes the flow at the beginning, because both mindfulness and flow are focused on awareness of the present moment (Wright et al., 2006). But when the level of mindfulness is high, mindfulness will have an inhibitory effect on flow, because if go further on the basis of awareness, mindfulness requires maintaining awareness of external stimuli and inner activities, and flow requires further ecstasy, complete absorption and immersion in the task, so at this time the two have different development paths (Sheldon et al., 2015). ...
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... Conversely, greater mindfulness correlates with less mind-wandering and a greater frequency of flow (Deng et al., 2014;Marty-Dugas and Smilek, 2018;Lambert and Csikszentmihalyi, 2019;Xie, 2021). Mindfulness and flow are both characterized by the strong focus of attention at the present moment (Wright et al., 2006;Šimleša et al., 2018). Through the facilitation of attentional control, mindfulness can help individuals be more aware of current thoughts and goal-directed actions, and guide them from mind-wandering to a focus on the current task (Smallwood and Schooler, 2015;Prakash et al., 2020). ...
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... The inherent relationship between mindfulness and occupational engagement has been recognised by occupational therapists (Reid, 2005;. Engaging in occupations that are the correct balance of challenge and skill creates a sense of involvement and awareness that is similar to mindfulness (Wright, Sadlo & Stew, 2006;Reid, 2011;Herbert, 2016). An interesting way of understanding presence and open water swimming is through the model of occupational presence (Reid, 2005). ...
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Chapter
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Thesis
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shows how the Milanese team operationalized the new conceptual model when the model was reformulated this way, the ESM [Experience Sampling Method] data fell beautifully in line with the theoretical expectations people reported the most positive states when the challenges and skills were in balance and when both were above their mean levels for the week of testing in the sample of Milanese teenagers, for instance, 18 of the 27 dimensions of experience were significantly more positive in this condition than in any other teenagers concentrated much more, felt more in control, were more happy, strong, active, involved, creative, free, excited, open, clear, motivated, and satisfied with their performance when both challenges and skills were in balance above the mean (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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This paper introduces the concept of flow to occupational therapists who may not be familiar with this body of literature and offers principles for the application of this knowledge to clinical practice. Flow is defined as a subjective psychological state which occurs when one is totally involved in an activity (M. Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Elements of the flow experience include the focusing of attention on a clear goal, a loss of self-consciousness, an altered sense of time, and a sense that the activity in itself is rewarding. Through a review of the literature, the author presents conditions linked to the experience of flow that pertain to traits of the person, properties of the activity, and the interaction between the two. The relevance of flow theory to occupational therapy and occupational science is discussed. Considerations for research on flow and occupation are outlined. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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this chapter is about the role of the flow experience in the construction and complexification of the self, and, in a broader sense, its role in biological and cultural evolution the characteristics that make the flow experience a negentropic state of consciousness—high concentration and involvement, clarity of goals and feedback, and intrinsic motivation, all made possible by a balance between perceived challenges and personal skills (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)