"If we value the flow experience," says Washington psychiatrist Dr. Jean Hamilton, "then it's certainly something we ought to be able to cultivate and foster."

Hamilton, who began studying "flow" with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1972 as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, found that flow involves almost effortless concentration and lowers neurological activity in the cortex of the brain.

America's traditional work ethic -- "work is good and play is bad" -- goes against the flow, says Hamilton, because "a lot of the flow experiences occur in situations like games and artistic rituals."

By the nature of who we are, there appear to be what Hamilton calls "internalized prohibitions" against the flow experience: teaching children, for example, to be motivated by extrinsic rewards -- grades, money, status, prestige.

"The more you socialize people to feed their self-esteem by extrinsic rewards," says Hamilton, "the less they are going to be able to tolerate intrinsic rewards, which is what the flow experience is all about."

People who are very productive at work, she says, can experience flow on the job. "It is false that you can't be productive and also have this kind of intrinsically absorbing experience. In fact, it's probably most likely that the more effective and absorbed you are in your work, the more likely you are to have the flow experience."