Let’s spend some time looking at the left-hand side of this graph. The engagement piece implies enjoyment and pleasure. The arousal speaks to the need for some stress to provoke a state of alertness; this is the positive side of anxiety. Finally, it’s the interplay of all these dimensions that prepares us or paves the way for that state of flow, where performance can be at its peak.
Note that good anxiety kicks in as the arousal level starts to increase, along with an increase in focus/attention. Arousal is measured in part by peripheral measures of autonomic activity such as heart rate and skin conduction. It’s also measured by cortical activity that can be detected by an EEG. Alongside this recruitment of arousal (positive energy) and attention is our interest or degree of engagement. Together these factors help make the performance take a sharp upward trajectory. It’s at the very top of the performance “mountain,” so to speak, when performance is optimal, that you can experience flow. This graph illustrates very well why classic flow is not experienced very often. There are a lot of elements that need to come together in order to hit the pinnacle of true “Csikszentmihalyi flow.”
Another element that can predict an experience of flow is improvement. Now, of course, “peak performance” is relative to any one person. My peak performance in playing the cello will always be wildly different from Yo-Yo Ma’s, but the possibility of reaching my own state of flow regardless of my skill level adds to my motivation—I want to do better, I want to improve. This desire is what triggers the reward network. We remember the experience of pleasure because the brain releases dopamine, which in turn feels good. It’s this good feeling that we remember and will want to repeat. The more skillful you are at something, the more efficiently your brain-body will perform. The more skillful you are, the more competent you feel. And the more competent you feel, the more relaxed you will be performing.
Looking again at the graph, it’s important to note that we all walk a very fine line—you might call it walking on a razor’s edge— between the point of optimal performance where flow is possible and succumbing to bad anxiety and the performance drop that comes with it.
Adapted from an excerpt from Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion. Copyright © 2022 by Wendy Suzuki, PhD. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.