Edward Phillips, M.D.

Go with the flow: engagement and concentration are key

Have you ever been so immersed in what you were doing that all distractions and background chatter just fell away? Nothing existed except the brush and your painting, your skis and the slope, your car and the road. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., calls that state of intense absorption “flow.”

For decades, he explored people’s satisfaction in their everyday activities, finding that people report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing. In studies by Csikszentmihalyi and others, flow experiences led to positive emotions in the short term, and over the long term, people who more frequently experienced flow were generally happier. Researchers have also found that people vary in how much they value having flow experiences, and in how easy they find it to enter flow. No matter what your natural tendency, recognizing how flow occurs (or doesn’t) in your life and creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness.

What is flow?

As described in Positive Psychology, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, flow experiences have several common characteristics.

You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.

You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.

You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Instead, you are completely focused on the activity—mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your work, creating tiers of beautiful icing for a cake, or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation.

You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.

You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.

You would like to repeat the experience.

Matching your skill level

The good news about flow and happiness is that you can increase the amount of flow experience in your life and reap the benefits, although it takes a certain amount of effort and comes more naturally to some people than others.

Flow experiences occur when there is a balance between the challenge of an activity and the skill you have in performing it (see “High skill + high challenge = flow”). When your skill is high but the challenge is low, boredom is the likely result. Set the challenge too high, though, by undertaking something that is way beyond your skill, and you’re out of the flow again.

Flow is more likely to happen when you’re playing a well-matched opponent, practicing a piano piece just a bit harder than the last one, or driving in unfamiliar terrain in a car you feel confident controlling. In one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies on flow, people enjoyed a game of chess more if they played against someone who was slightly more skillful than they were, and that close games were more satisfying than blow-outs—even for the person who lost the match.

You can’t force flow, but you can invite it to occur more often, even in areas of life where it might seem unlikely.

Encouraging flow

In a landmark study Csikszentmihalyi carried out at the University of Chicago, flow-producing situations occurred more than three times as often when people were working as in their leisure time. The researchers didn’t just count extremely intense flow experiences, but also counted any time that participants scored above their personal average in both the challenge faced and skills being used at the time of sampling. Flow experiences at work occurred at all levels—among managers, clerical staff, and blue-collar workers.

When it comes to leisure time, people spend relatively little time “in flow.” In Csikszentmihalyi’s study, driving was the most uniformly positive flow experience, while watching TV was usually non-flow time.

Of course, flow isn’t guaranteed when you pick up your paintbrush, hockey stick, or flute. You can best fan the flames of flow by:

  • Aiming to surprise yourself and discovering new things about your abilities and the activity.
  • Choosing an activity that can provide you with new feelings, experiences, and insights, and allowing your feelings and awareness to flow without attempting to interfere.
  • Paying attention to your bodily sensations and posture.
  • Overcoming the urge to stop at every mistake. You are likely to be at your best when you focus on what you want to accomplish or experience and don’t allow mistakes to be distracting.
  • Accepting that physical symptoms of nervousness are normal and will naturally ease off once you get going.
  • Trying to work or play with others.
  • Maintaining your sense of humor.

 High skill + high challenge = flow

"Flow" can happen during any activity when the level of challenge matches the level of skill. High challenge and low skill produce anxiety. Low challenge and high skill produce boredom.

“Flow” can happen during any activity when the level of challenge matches the level of skill. High challenge and low skill produce anxiety. Low challenge and high skill produce boredom.

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