Flow-the ‘secret to happiness’
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of positive psychology, interestingly describes flow as “the secret to happiness”.
What is flow?
Here’s his definition of flow: “The intense experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity, which can be either physical or mental. Attention is fully invested in the task at hand and the person functions at her/his fullest capacity.”
And this can apply to any activity that captivates us and where we forget time – socialising, sport, reading, studying, etc, etc. I experienced flow when I was researching for my assessments – my attention was fully focused on the content I was researching and writing about, I wasn’t checking my emails or worried about the time – I was fully immersed and very much enjoying what I was doing.
Does this sound familiar to you?
When was the last time you experienced flow?
What were you doing?
How can flow make us happier?
When we experience moments of flow we:
- lose our sense of self temporarily, and with it the self-judgment and comparison with others
- are focused and doing an activity that moves us towards our goals
- are being challenged
- are positive and energised
- are feeling in control and are not self-conscious
By having experiences in flow, it also helps us to:
- make better decisions about what enriches us, and what depletes us
- know our strengths and what we can do well
Reflecting after spending hours researching and writing for my papers, I have to say that I definitely do feel happier! I have been focused, productive, cemented new knowledge, learned new things, and I felt particularly happy that what I was learning can help others. I also felt satisfied, accomplished and that I’ve worked hard.
How about you, when you’ve been in flow, what emotions have you experienced?
And how about after – what impact did it have on you afterwards?
What can you do to find your flow?
According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are a few common characteristics of flow:
1. The activity must have a clear structure, set of milestones or rules, and the participant must know what they need to do within the activity.
For example, I have very clear criteria for what is being assessed. I also wrote on my to-do list each day the sections of my papers I wanted to complete by the end of the day, and from the detailed criteria I knew how long each section needed to be.
2. There must be an immediate sense of awareness that participants are on their path to achieving their goals.
My to-do list helps me with this. Once I’d finished each section, I crossed them off my list. And when I finish writing a section of paper, I highlight it in yellow.
3. This is the characteristic that I find most critical – When the challenge and the person’s skill are balanced, they become lost in the activity and flow is the likely result.
If the skill and challenge levels are unbalanced for the activity, it’s possible to experience boredom, anxiety or even apathy.
The work I do for my assessments is compatible with my skill levels – I’ve already completed a research degree and therefore have the experience and skill for this task, and the challenge is at the right level as the content I’m researching is not basic, but it’s also not extremely complicated. Therefore, creating the right conditions for flow to occur.
In comparison, when I reflect on an activity such as surfing through websites looking at pretty dresses, I quickly see that there is absolutely no challenge, and only basic internet skills required, so when doing this (even though I do like pretty dresses) I quickly become bored and even apathetic. Which brings me into a state of negative emotion.
How can you help others to find flow?
Whether you are a parent, a leader or someone who simply likes to support others, think about the positive impact that it would have on those around them when your child, team member or colleague experiences more moments of flow!
Here are some questions to consider to help others find moments of flow.
- How could you design an activity for the person you have in mind, that has the right balance of skill and challenge to get them to flow?
- Do they know enough about their activity to achieve flow?
- Think about what their natural strengths are, and in what activities they can use them to get them into flow?
- How can you encourage them to stop activities that result in apathy or anxiety?
- What else do they need to support them to find flow – do they prefer to work quietly, or do they thrive in noisy, stimulating environments?
- How can you best explain your moments of flow to them?!
I’d love to hear your experiences of flow, please leave your comments below!
– Watch the TED talk from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
– Read my blog on how to reduce your multi-tasking to create conditions for flow to occur
Kelly is a certified coach with over 20 years of experience, holds the PCC credential from the International Coach Federation and has completed a MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology with distinction. She offers bespoke positive psychology based coaching packages to help ambitious professionals to develop their authentic leadership identity, create more fulfilling careers and implement personalised strategies for optimal wellbeing at work.