Have you ever been so totally, wonderfully engrossed in a task that you lost all sense of the world around you? Did time itself appear to fall away as, just for a while, you had your own universe entirely for yourself and whatever you were doing? If so, then you have experienced the psychological state of flow. Originally defined by the wonderfully-named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, flow describes a condition of total pleasurable engrossment in a task to the exclusion of awareness of surroundings, time and distractions. In some ways, it’s the same as being “in the zone” but on steroids.

I mention flow because I was thinking recently about some of the best gifts I’ve ever received. What was it that made them so memorable? When I was 16 my parents bought me a guitar. I was completely blown away. I loved it immediately and became absolutely obsessed with learning to play. One particular day I remember suddenly being aware that my fingers were bleeding and that it was dark outside – my perception of time and even of pain had melted away through complete engrossment – what I now know to be flow.

The flow state was characterised by Csikszentmihályi as “the optimal experience" because it results in a level of extremely high gratification, at least partly because of the complete exclusion of negative feelings and stress during the flow condition. Therefore, for those of us with any stress or worry in our lives (and let’s face it, that’s all of us) achieving flow state can be an extremely effective form of relaxation and health-promotion.

So how can you achieve flow state? Research suggests that not just any old activity will work. As with many great things in life there’s a formula to follow and it really boils down to three things:-

  1. The activity must be active and have a clear set of goals and progress. Zoning out in a chair won’t work. It needs to be a task that has a well-defined direction and structure such as reaching a specific target or a particular standard.
  2. There must be clear and immediate feedback. This enables constant adaptation of task performance to allow the person to remain actively engaged in the flow state.
  3. There must be a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and a person’s perceived skills. It’s nigh on impossible to achieve flow if you are attempting a task that’s well beyond your capabilities. A “comfortable struggle” works best that requires you to mentally work but doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re intellectually drowning.

Perhaps, then, when addressing the eternal question of what on earth to buy someone for birthdays or Christmas, a gift that will allow the person to enter a flow-state could be one that they will cherish for a great many years (I still have the guitar). What kind of gifts would do this?

Musical instruments for one. Remember that it’s hard to achieve flow if attempting an almost impossible task so I’d probably steer away from a sitar. But most instruments are pretty accessible even at a basic level, and those that sound good on their own (guitar, piano, other strung instruments) offer a particularly good chance of inducing a flow state.

Art is another way to achieve flow. Artists are notorious for losing themselves in their craft – the concept of the Starving Artist didn’t come from nowhere. Painting, drawing, sculpting or photography all tick the boxes for the conditions we described above, and the tools to do this would make fantastic presents for anyone who needs a better way to relax in their life than slobbing on the sofa.

Mental games and challenges are another great method. Have you ever marvelled at the intensity of concentration displayed by two top-level chess players engaged in battle? You can bet your bottom dollar that they are a deep in flow-state as it’s possible to be. Maybe that’s why they always have a clock next to the board.

Next time you buy your partner something, gift them the gift of flow. For more ideas, check out the Recharge Gifts For Men section. I guarantee that they’ll be thankful forever.