FINDING “FLOW”

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HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING [PART 11] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D

“I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.”  ~ Thomas A. Edison

  • Do you ever get so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time, and become oblivious to everything else? What types of activities affect you this way?

If you’re familiar with how it feels to be so completely immersed in an activity that everything else literally recedes from conscious awareness, then you have experienced what psychologists call “flow.” In a flow state (athletes sometimes refer to it as “being in the zone”), concentration is effortless and complete, giving rise to a sense of competence and control. Being in flow is the essence of being in the moment. And, studies have found that quality of life is substantially enhanced when people regularly spend time participating in activities where they experience flow.

It’s helpful to be able to identify which activities tend to promote flow experiences for you. If you think back over the years, you may recognize the presence of flow in a number of the activities you’ve enjoyed. Perhaps you’ve experienced flow during activities such as painting, playing an instrument, gardening,  running, cooking, playing video games, or any one of a large number of other solo activities. Maybe you’ve had flow experiences during dyadic cooperative, goal-oriented activities like intense conversations, two-person games such as chess, two-person physical activities such as dancing or golf, and so on. You may have had group flow experiences in situations where people were gathered together for activities such as team sports, band, choir, theater productions, rock concerts, work teams, brain-storming activities, drum circles, or any other goal-oriented group activity. It’s worth noting that participation in group flow activities stands out for many people as being among some of their most memorable experiences.

Though many people spend a lot of free time watching TV, flow isn’t likely to be experienced during passive leisure activities. While they can be enjoyable and relaxing in moderation, passive leisure activities don’t generally contribute much to overall happiness and well-being. In fact, contrary to what many people believe, spending a great deal of time in passive leisure activities is more likely to lead to boredom and dissatisfaction

NECESSARY CONDITIONS FOR FLOW

It’s possible to experience flow in almost any activity, provided the activity involves the synthesis of challenge and skill. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first introduced the concept in the 1960s, three of the primary conditions necessary for flow to occur are: (1) having a clear goal; (2) receiving direct and immediate feedback about progress toward that goal; and (3) achieving the correct balance between challenge and skill. The goal needs to be challenging but manageable, and very clearly defined. Since flow involves intense focus, it’s best to eliminate unnecessary distractions (e.g. cell phones, etc.) when you are taking on a challenge.

FINDING FLOW IS ABOUT FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE BETWEEN ANXIETY AND BOREDOM

Flow is especially gratifying when both the challenge and the skill level are high. However, if the challenge is too high relative the skill level, the activity will cause stress and anxiety. And, if the challenge is too low, it will lead to boredom. Flow can be found in the area that lies between anxiety and boredom.  For challenges that are too difficult, flow can be achieved by: (1) breaking the task into smaller, more manageable steps; and/or (2) by seeking training or assistance to help obtain the requisite skills. When the task is too simple, the way to achieve flow is to increase the complexity of the challenge by developing new and more interesting ways of approaching the task.

SOME SIMPLE WAYS TO GET MORE FLOW INTO YOUR LIFE

IDENTIFY YOUR PREFERRED FLOW ACTIVITIES: Based on the descriptions above, try to identify activities where you’ve experienced flow. Make a list of those activities, and make an effort to do them more often. If you find yourself becoming bored with an activity, you can increase the level of challenge so that you will be able to continue to experience flow. But, don’t increase the level of challenge too much, or it will cause you anxiety. When you find the right balance between boredom and anxiety, the activity should be quite enjoyable and you are likely to be in a flow state.

DEVELOP STRATEGIES FOR EXPERIENCING FLOW IN ROUTINE TASKS: When you have to do mundane, boring tasks (e.g. cleaning) you can generate a flow experience by simply incorporating an achievable challenge into the activity. In order to stay interested in the activity, the challenge should be slightly out of reach, so that you are always pursuing a manageable goal. For example, if you are cleaning and you wish to experience flow, you can challenge yourself to do the cleaning faster, or in a different manner than usual, such as using your non-dominant hand. If you are waiting for a bus or a doctor appointment, try setting a goal that you can work on while you wait, such as seeing how many words you can think of that begin with a particular letter.

SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS ON FLOW

The research on what facilitates flow has important implications for use of leisure time in general, and for people heading into retirement in particular. At a minimum, it suggests a need to add variety, challenge, and ideally meaning to leisure activities, especially if you are no longer working at a job.  Since studies have found that it’s rare for people to adopt new interests in retirement, it’s helpful to establish flow-inducing interests and activities before retirement, whenever possible.  But, if you’re in retirement and you haven’t yet established any flow-inducing hobbies, it’s never too late to make a point of identifying some and adding them to your life. In fact, no matter where you are in your life trajectory, finding ways to integrate healthy flow activities into your life is an easily accessible and powerful way to increase your happiness and well-being.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Achor, S. (2013-09-10). Before happiness: The 5 hidden keys to achieving success, spreading happiness, and sustaining positive change. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2013-10-08). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Kotler, S. (2014-03-04). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

McGonigal, Kelly (2015-05-05). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

 

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II