Go with the flow: how to help people have optimal recreation experiences – Research Update

Judith Voelkl

“I can get totally into the music and not get self-conscious about dancing. I know, that when I first start or if there is some distraction, or I’m conscious of the way I’m dancing, I don’t dance as ‘well as when I’m really totally into the music. [I feel the music in my body] when dancing That’s the way it’s expressed, the way I feel about it, the way I think about it–which is why it’s hard to articulate, because it’s something that just comes out in my body, ’cause I don’t usually think about the steps I’m going to do consciously.”–Quote from a dancer, Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, p. 105

The essence of flow experiences, as described by the dancer in the quote above and in Csikszentmihalyi’s groundbreaking 1975 text, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, captured the interest of leisure services professionals. Over the past two decades many professionals have contemplated how to maximize the link between their knowledge of flow and delivering recreation services that will foster absorbing flow experiences. Many questions have emerged from such thoughtful contemplation and active programming, including: How may I foster absorbing experiences for all participants?, How may I gauge the feedback necessary to maintain participants’ absorption? and When may it be important to modify the levels of challenge inherent in the activity?

A substantial amount of research has been conducted on flow since the birth of that concept in 1975. The purpose of this research update is to provide a summary of select facets of that research that are particularly relevant to the challenge of providing recreation services that facilitate optimal experiences. In the rest of this article, we’ll briefly review early and contemporary conceptual models of flow, describe a contemporary model that specifies characteristics and conditions of flow experiences, summarize how flow research is related to important related daily experiences and review research findings about flow in recreation and sport programs. The “Research Into Action” section provides specific suggestions for how recreation service providers can apply this information to facilitate activities that maximize opportunities for optimal experience.

Early and Contemporary Flow Models

Flow experiences have been described as “… holistic sensation(s) that people feel when they act with total involvement” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, p. 36). Also called “autotelic experiences” (auto=self and telic=goal), flow experiences are an end in themselves, driven by self-directed goals. Conceptual models of flow have evolved from more than 25 years of research. The earliest model was Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) popular graphic depiction of flow (see Figure 1 at the right). This initial graphic is well known by leisure researchers and service providers, and has led to the general perception that the balance of challenge and skill is the characteristic most central to flow experiences.


In subsequent research examining flow (e.g., Carli, Delle Fave, & Massimini, 1988; Ellis, Voelkl, & Morris, 1994; Jones, Hollenborst, Perna, & Selin, 2000; Massimini & Carli, 1988), researchers have treated challenge-skill balance as the condition needed to foster flow experiences that consist of the remaining characteristics (i.e., merging action and awareness, clear goals and feedback, concentration, control, loss of self-consciousness, transformation of time). Further, Csikszentmihalyi (1988) points out that, to experience flow, individuals’ challenges and skills must not only be in balance, but also exceed levels that are typical for their daily experiences. Flow is thus facilitated when our challenges and skills are in balance and above our personal averages. This research follows from more elaborate models of flow “channels” (Massimini & Carli, 1988; see Figure 2 at the right) that distinguished between flow and such other experiences as arousal, anxiety, worry, apathy, relaxation, boredom and control, based on balance and imbalance among individuals’ challenges and skills.


Recently, Csikszentmihalyi (2000) proposed that clear goals and immediate feedback, as well as challenge-skill, serve as conditions that pave the way for flow experiences. On p. 22, Figure 3, a model derived from contemporary understanding of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Voelkl & Ellis, 2002), shows how conditions Of flow and characteristics of flow may lead to additional developmentally important outcomes. Recent research findings (e.g., Ellis, 2003; Sibthorp, Wells, Witter; Ellis, & Voelkl, in press; Voelkl & Ellis, 1998) also indicate that the balance

between challenge and skill is much less predictive of flow than other possible conditions. Such findings suggest that Csikszentmihalyi’s early graphic of flow (Figure 1 on p.21) may have resulted hi an inappropriate overemphasis on the importance of the challenge and skill balance in creating flow.

Conditions and Characteristics of Flow

Over the years, Sikszentmihalyi has identified varying numbers (from five to eight) of elements associated with these unique experiences. In a recent paper on flow, Csikszentmihalyi (2000) subdivided these elements into two sets: characteristics of flow and conditions of flow. Characteristics refer to the experiential nature of the flow phenomenon itself (i.e., what people “feel” while in flow). Conditions, on the other hand, are circumstances and environments that are assumed to be conducive to flow experiences. Distinguishing between these conditions and characteristics is particularly useful for park and recreation practitioners who seek to facilitate flow experiences among recipients of their services. Practitioners may enhance participants’ opportunities to experience flow (characteristics of flow) by managing circumstances in the programming and leadership environment (conditions of flow). Thus, in this section we’ll briefly review the conditions and characteristics of flow (see Table 1 on p. 23) most frequently cited in the literature (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; 1990; 2000).

Despite research suggesting weak effects on flow the balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill continues to be the most-often-cited condition of flow. Such a balance is assumed to allow participants to invest the psychic energy necessary for the emergence of flow. A key aspect of this condition is that it’s based on perceptions of the participant rather than on judgments of participant challenges and skills made by leaders or supervisors of an activity. Managing perceived challenge and skill thus speaks to the need for recreation leaders to be aware of participants’ perceptions of skills and the demands of an activity. Numerous opportunities exist for leaders to optimize such balance. A recreation leader organizing a youth sports league, for example, would do well to form teams in a manner that ensures that teams can’t be stacked with highly talented or experienced players. Discrepancies in talent and experience would create mismatches between challenges and skills during subsequent competition between teams.

Clear goals and immediate feedback are additional conditions of flow. These factors speak to how the structure of an activity may enhance flow. As a result of clear goals and immediate feedback, participants report a heightened sense that they’re being effective at what they’re doing. For example, a tennis player who enters a point with the specific goal of returning every volley will focus her attention on her swings and receive immediate feedback. Recreation leaders and programmers can attend to these conditions in a number of ways, ranging from the way that they provide verbal feedback to participants who are learning new activity skills to arranging environments in such a way that minimal opportunities exist to distract participants from focusing on the activity at hand.

Characteristics of Flow

By optimizing the conditions of flow, recreation leaders and programmers may promote actual flow experiences. Such experiences have a variety of characteristics. People in flow report a merging of action and awareness. A rock climber put it this way: “You don’t feel like you’re doing something as a conscious being; you’re adapting to the rock and becoming part of it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, p. 86). Strongly related to the merging of action and awareness is an experience of focused concentration. When experiencing flow, people are focusing their attention and their energies on the task at hand, rather than wondering if they have enough money in their checking account to pay bills or whether they’ll finish in time to pick up their daughter or son from daycare.

Although people in flow report a sense of control, they also indicate that as soon as their attention focuses on maintaining control, they lose the sense of flow. For example, the tennis player who begins to think about how to control a series of returns may lose the focus that had allowed her to be successful in volleying each ball back to her opponent.

Loss of self-consciousness is an additional characteristic of these absorbing experiences. To be in flow, the individual must not be focusing on general evaluations of her or his performance. Rather, the action of the activity seems to merge with awareness such that the individual becomes one with the activity. If, for example, self-evaluative statements are present, such as “I’m doing really well” or, as might occur in our earlier tennis example, “I hope my boyfriend saw that great shot I just made,” action hasn’t merged with awareness, no loss of self-consciousness is present and flow isn’t occurring.

Finally, our experience of time is transformed when we are in flow. Csikszentmihalyi (2000) provides an exceptional description of this phenomenon in his works, in one case describing a relative who become so absorbed in studying crystals that entire days may pass without him noticing the time.

Flow Experiences in Daily Life

Flow is theoretically assumed to occur when the five characteristics outlined in Table 1 converge into one optimal experience. Such convergence is an elusive phenomenon that, for most people, occurs only on rare occasions. It can be elicited by the immediate conditions of our environment, as discussed in the previous section, or we may induce it ourselves (e.g., by contemplating an interesting problem or issue). Even under these circumstances, however, flow often doesn’t occur.

Because of its elusiveness, flow is a difficult concept to study. Most researchers have tried to study an approximation of it by examining various characteristics as they occur during the course of daily life. Typically, researchers have used the experience-sampling method (ESM) to assess flow in daily life. Participants in ESM studies carry an electronic pager or beeper watch for four to seven days; when beeped at random times, they report on their immediate experience by completing a one-page form. The ESM has been used to assess experiences in daily life among students (e.g., Carli, Delle Fave, & Massimini, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984), family members (e.g., Larson & Richards, 1994), adults with psychiatric diagnoses (Massimini, Csikszentmihalyi, & Carli, 1987), community-dwelling older adults (Mannell, Zuzanek, & Larson, 1988) and nursing home residents (Voelkl, 1990). In general, using the four-channel model of flow (see Figure 2 on p. 21) to examine the relationship between challenge-skill balance, these studies have found high challenge-skill to be related to high levels of affect, concentration and activation, to name a few characteristics. When all of the characteristics co-occur at high levels, flow is likely to be present.

Considering the five characteristics separately implies a model of daily experience that’s related to, but not the same as flow. Profiles of high, low and moderate levels of the five characteristics may be used to define our daily experiences. Certain anxiety-filled circumstances, for example, create experiences that reflect high levels of concentration, but low levels of sense of control, forgetting of self, transcendence and time distortion. In more relaxed circumstances, we might experience the latter three characteristics, but not necessarily the first two. Research on flow has thus taught us as much about daily experiences as it has about the flow phenomenon itself

This general daily experience model has also provided insight into how different activities in which people engage may influence their experiences. Research on the daily-experience model has been conducted for people within a variety of age ranges. One example is a secondary analysis of data from a study of flow-related daily experiences of adolescents (Kleiber, Larson, & Csikszentmihalyi, 1986). Ellis and Rademacher (1987) identified a typology of adolescent free-time behaviors. Five activity types were identified in that research:

* Learning (e.g., studying, thinking);

* Transitional/Expressive (e.g., arts and hobbies, music, sports);

* Resting;

* Fantasy and Imagery (e.g., reading, television watching); and

* Socializing.

Within those categories, adolescents reported the highest levels of perceived freedom during fantasy/imagery activities and transitional/expressive activities. Their most positive emotional states (affect) were reported during socializing, and their least positive emotional states were reported during resting activities. This research suggests a basis for programming for recreation experiences for adolescents that include socializing, and it may alert service providers to particular facets of recreation services that may be expected to produce different types of moods and related emotional responses.

Flow in Recreation Activities and Programs

A number of researchers have investigated flow in recreation and sport programs (e.g., Jackson, 1992; Jackson, Ford, & Marsh, 1998; Jones, Hollenhorst, & Perna, 2003; Jones, Hollenhorst, Perma, & Selin, 2000; Stein, Kimiecik, Daniels, & Jackson, 1995). Findings from these studies indicated that flow does indeed occur during planned recreation activities. More specifically, Stein, Kimiecik, Daniels and Jackson (1995) examined the experiences of tournament tennis player, college students enrolled in a basketball class and golfers playing at a country club. Using the four-channel model (see Figure 2), the tennis players, basketball players and golfers all reported significantly higher levels of enjoyment, satisfaction, concentration and control in flow than when in the other three channels. Unique to the golfers was the finding that their levels of subjective experience were highest in the flow and the boredom channels, the channels in which their perceived skill was higher than average (flow=both challenge and skill above their mean, boredom=skill was above their mean and challenge below their mean).

Recently, Walker (2002) compared the flow states among recreational and competitive athletes. Although these findings indicated that both recreational and competitive athletes experienced flow during workouts, for the recreational athletes flow was significantly more important in determining their satisfaction with participation. Among the competitive athletes, flow had no significant relationship with activity performance satisfaction; rather, success determined their satisfaction. Conversely, the recreational athletes who completed nearly identical workouts indicated that achieving flow was their primary mediator in determining satisfaction with their performance. These findings suggest that high levels of competition may result in decreasing the sense of satisfaction and meaning that participants experience in flow activities.

Flow experiences have been studied during adventure activities. Jones, Hollenhorst, Perna and Selin (2000), for example, studied flow among kayakers. Using event-contingent methods to assess flow characteristics at eight points along a river, the investigators tracked participants’ experiences at various levels of difficulty based on the International Scale of Whitewater Difficulty. They found that the four-channel flow model explained more of the variance in flow characteristics than the original model. Furthermore, measurement on perceived challenge-skill following the most difficult rapids resulted in flow and anxiety experiences more frequently than boredom or apathy experiences. This research supports the validity of the four-channel model in capturing participants’ challenge-skill experiences in adventure activities.

In summary, flow is a phenomenon that has captured the attention of behavioral scientists and human service practitioners for almost three decades. Recent research on flow has revealed circumstances in our social and physical environments that may be conducive to flow experiences. These circumstances may provide useful bases for making decisions about specific facets of programs and recreation services, ranging in scope from scheduling to the content and nature of direct interactions between leaders and participants. Research on flow has spawned related lines of inquiry on factors that influence the quality of daily of experiences of individuals in a variety of settings. Daily-experience research has also yielded preliminary principles that may prove useful in delivering recreation programs and services. Select ideas from these bodies of research are presented in the “Research into Action” section on p. 26.

Table 1. Characteristics and Conditions of Flow

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)


Clear Goals and “… goals are usually clear, and feedback

Immediate Feedback immediate …” (p. 54)

Challenging Activity “… when the challenges are just balanced

That Requires Skill with the person’s capacity to act …” (p.



Intense Concentration “… one is able to forget all the unpleasant

aspects of life … enjoyable activities

require a complete focusing of attention on

the task at hand …” (p. 58)

Merging of Action “… all … skills are needed to cope with

and Awareness the challenges of the situation, that

person’s attention is completely absorbed by

the activity …” (p. 53)

Paradox of Control “… involving a sense of control … lacking

the sense of worry about losing control that

is typical in many situations of normal

life …” (p. 59)

Loss of Self “… doesn’t have the opportunity to reflect

Consciousness on what this means in terms of the self …

when the activity is over and self-conscious-

ness has a chance to resume, the self that

the person reflects upon is not the same

self that existed before the flow experience:

it is now enriched by new skills and fresh

achievements …” (p. 66)

Transformation of Time “… time no longer seems to pass the way it

ordinarily does …” (p. 66)


Carli, M., Delle Fave, A., & Massimini, F. (1988). The quality of experience in the flow channels: Comparison of Italian and U.S. citizens. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi, I. (Eds.) (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies off flow in consciousness(pp. 288-306). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). The flow experience and its significance for human psychology. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi, I. (Eds.) (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 15-35). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). The contribution of flow to positive psychology: Scientific essays in honor of Martin E. P. Seligman. In J. E. Gillham, (Ed.), The science of optimism and hope. (pp. 387-395). Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (Eds.) (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1984). Being adolescent: Conflict and growth in the teenage years. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ellis, G. D. (2003, April 4). Wrestling J.B. Nash. J8 Nash Lecture presented at the meeting of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, Philadelphia, PA.

Ellis, G. & Rademacher, C. (1987). Development of a typology of common adolescent leisure activities: A validation and extension of Kleiber, Larson, and Csikszentmihalyi. Journal of Leisure Research, 4, 284-292.

Ellis, G., Voelkl, J. E., & Morris, C. (1994). Measurement and analysis issues with explanation of variance in daily experiences using the flow model. Journal of Leisure Research, 26 (4), 337-356.

Jackson, S. A. (1992). Athletes in flow: A qualitative investigation of flow states in elite figure skaters. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 4, 161-180.

Jackson, S. A., Ford, S. K., & Marsh, H. W. (1998). Psychological correlates of flow in sport. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 20 (4).

Jones, C. D., Hollenhorst, S. J., Perna, F., & Selin, S. (2000). Validation of the flow theory in an onsite whitewater kayaking setting. Journal of Leisure Research, 32 (2), 247-261.

Jones, C. D., Hollenhorst, S. J., & Perna, F., (2003). An empirical comparison of the fear channel flow model and an adventure experience paradigm. Leisure Sciences, 25, 17-31.

Kleiber, D., Larson, R., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1986). The experience of leisure in adolescence. Journal of Leisure Research,18, 169-176.

Larson, R., & Richards, M. H. (1994). Divergent realities: The emotional lives of mothers, fathers, and adolescents. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Mannell, R. C., Zuzanek, J., & Larson, R. (1988). Leisure states and “flow” experiences: Testing perceived freedom and intrinsic motivation hypotheses. Journal of Leisure Research, 20 (4), 289-304.

Massimini, F., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Carli, M. (1987). The monitoring of optimal experience: A tool for psychiatric rehabilitation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 175 (9), 545-549.

Massimini, F., & Carli, M. (1988). The systematic assessment of flow in daily experience. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi, I. (Eds.) (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 266-287). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sibthorp, J., Witter, E., Wells, M., Ellis, G., & Voelkl, J. (in press). Hierarchical linear modeling in park, recreation, and tourism research. Abstracts from the 2003 Symposium on Leisure Research. Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.

Stein, G. L., Kimiecik, J. C., Daniels, J., & Jackson, S. A. (1995). Psychological antecedents of flow in recreational sport. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21 (2), 125-135.

Voelkl, J. E. (1990). The challenge skill ratio of daily experiences among older adults residing in institutional environments. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 24 (2), 7-17.

Voelkl, J. E., & Ellis, G. D. (1998). Measuring flow experiences in daily life: An examination of the items used to measure challenge and skill. Journal of Leisure Research, 30 (3), 380-389.

Voelkl, J. E., & Ellis, G. D. (2002). Optimal experience in daily life: examination of the predictors, dimensions and outcome. In Abstracts from the 2002 Leisure Research Symposium, Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.

Walker, J. (2002). Exploring the influence of the individual’s ability to experience flow while participating in a group-dependent activity on individual satisfaction with a group’s performance. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina.


Following our review of the flow literature, we identified several strategies for leisure services professionals, both leaders and programmers, who are interested in supporting participants’ flow experiences. Although further research is needed to substantiate the efficacy of these strategies, we believe that many programmers and leaders already have many anecdotal stories as to their usefulness.

Structure program enrollments to ensure an optimal match between participants’ skill levels and the demands of activities within the program: Given that when perceived skill and activity demands match a participant is more likely to report high levels of enjoyment, it’s important to offer activity programs for various skill levels. For example, offering swimming lessons at the beginner, intermediate and advanced level increases the opportunity for activity demands to be matched with a participant’s perceived skill level. Leaders who are aware of a participant’s perceived skill may also act to ensure a challenge-skill match. If an intermediate level swimmer perceives himself to be a beginner, he will most likely feel anxious and not experience flow during an intermediate lesson. Leaders and programmers who are sensitive to the perception and needs of participants can increase the odds that each participant will experience flow.

Create program environments that minimize distractions and support participants’ full involvement: Creating environments that afford full participation will increase the odds that participants experience flow. Loud distractions may interrupt a painter’s focus on her watercolor. In a community recreation center, dirty towels, broken equipment, noise pollution or vandalism may frustrate a participant to such a degree that he can’t get in “the zone” as he does his morning run on the treadmill. Effective leaders and programmers need to think through how to create and maintain environments that afford participants’ absorption in activities.

Support expectations and an attitude that fosters engagement and re-engagement in a flow activity: Many individuals expect too much too soon. Today’s participants have seen many sport montages on TV where exceptional skill mastery occurs in a matter of days; in reality, the progression of skill development took place over weeks, months or even years. It’s possible that the average participant expects too much too soon–they may want instant “video game” reward systems. Leaders and programmers may need to educate participants about what to expect in terms of skill development, including the amount of time and repetitions needed to gain skill and progress in the mastery of an activity. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect!

Consider the ramifications of promoting excessive competition that focuses on outcomes: Many community sports programs are focused on competition. Leaders and programmers working in such programs may spend more field time focused on the competition than skill development, as well as using winning as the primary system of recognition. Unfortunately, if athletes are taught to become focused on the outcome and not the process, opportunities to experience flow are reduced. Essentially, participants are encouraged to care less about learning and participating and care more about winning. Once an individual’s motivation for participation is transferred to something extrinsic (financial and social rewards, crowd recognition), she’s less likely to participate without the potential of a tangible payoff.

If planning a recreation experience for an individual, work diligently to identify how activities relate to things that the individual values about himself: Flow experiences are related to personal identities and our sense of self. When we do things that facilitate our affirmation of characteristics about ourselves that we like and value, positive experiences tend to occur. Thus, to promote flow, we must not only understand what specific activities people prefer, but, perhaps more important, their preferred nature of involvement in those activities. For an individual who values challenge and physical ability, a hike in the mountains may be best if a steep trail that’s difficult to negotiate is chosen for the experience. For an individual for whom socializing with friends is important, a hike in a less demanding area that presents greater opportunity for conversation may be preferred. In either case, to simply know that an individual prefers hiking provides insufficient information for planning an experience. It’s thus better if the recreation programmer can dig deeper than activity labels when assessing participants’ interests.

Judith Voelkl, Ph.D., CTRS, is an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University. Gary Ellis, Ph.D., is professor and chair in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah. Joseph Walker, Ph.D., is an instructor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University.

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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