A chart showing the ideal flow state centered between anxiety and boredom. In flow, challenges and skills are evenly matched.

As part of the START network, you have likely encountered the concept of "flow." You're probably aware that it is a mental state that can occur when we are using our strengths. But how exactly is flow defined? And how can it benefit us?      

One of the guiding principles of START is positive psychology and strengths-based practice. Positive psychology is built on the concept of character strengths, the psychological ingredients for displaying human goodness. There are 24 universal character strengths that are present in everyone, and each person has primary or “signature strengths.” 

Signature strengths are ones that are practiced more regularly and help put a person in “flow,” which means that by fostering these primary strengths, a person is more likely to experience happiness, contentment, and wellness.

But flow is more than just enjoying an activity. Flow is experienced when perceived opportunities for action are in balance with a person's capabilities, according to Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the term.  

Flow can also be described as challenges that stretch (neither overmatching nor underutilizing) existing skills, with clear goals and immediate feedback about progress being made (Nakamura, 2002).  

Being in flow is the subjective experience of engaging in manageable challenges, tackling a series of goals, processing feedback, and adjusting actions. Under these conditions, the experience seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment (Nakamura, 2002). People in flow often become intensely focused on the present moment and lose track of time.     

Flow is generally an enjoyable experience but the balance is fragile; if the challenges are too high, it can result in anxiety, and if the challenges are too low, it can result in boredom. 

Being in flow can benefit everyone, from people with disabilities receiving START services to professionals providing these services.  

At a recent NCSS meeting, we asked staff to share what flow means to them with examples of activities that put them in flow. All members of the START network are encouraged to participate in this exercise with their teams!

  • Flow is when I'm completely in the moment and lose track of time. I find myself in flow when spending time with family, especially when we travel. During girls nights, especially at girls nights in. Also during trainings, especially with new teams learning about the START model and START coordination.
  • In my personal life I experience flow when I'm working in my garden. I can completely lose myself in the beauty and wonderful smells.
  • Flow means that things tend to happen as we expect, hope, or as planned. Flow tends to be individualized to one's own personal daily goals or expectations. This could occur in different aspects of one's lifestyle such as work, relationships, or identified activity/event.
  • To me, being in flow means being fully present and engaged with the task or the people at hand, and my strengths are guiding me in how I meet that moment. My body, mind, and spirit all feel like they are working together in concert and I feel grounded in my values and strengths that I'm using in that moment. Tasks that put me in flow are learning new things, teaching, facilitating, or otherwise collaborating with others particularly when discussion and deeper analysis are involved. I am a nurturer and I love to help and support other people, whether it's with getting through a hard time, providing childcare, or just setting a room up for a meeting and breaking it down later. I also often experience flow when doing creative things like reading and writing, or drawing and coloring, and regularly lose myself in these hobbies outside of work - I can stay busy for hours and yet feel refreshed afterward!
  • Flow to me means getting lost in what you are doing, being fully present and time passing by without noticing. Professionally, working with certain colleagues puts me in flow, regardless of what we are doing. For example, reviewing the SIRS Data Dictionary with Felicia - a very mundane task - goes by so quickly every time! Collaboration and connection puts me in flow. Visiting a new coffee shop, looking at historic homes and strolling main streets puts me in flow personally.
  • Flow is when I lose track of time because I am invested in an activity. Flow is when I am doing something that brings intrigue or curiosity out of me.
  • To me, flow means energy in matches energy out. I may expend a lot of energy on an activity, like learning a new musical instrument or a new song, but I enjoy playing the music so much, that energy is returned. 



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

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Chapter 7 The Concept of Flow. In Snyder & Lopez (Eds.) Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 89-105). Oxford Univ. Press.