Sign Up Now For
HEALTHbeat
Our FREE E-mail Newsletter

In each issue of HEALTHbeat:

  • Get trusted advice from the doctors at Harvard Medical School
  • Learn tips for living a healthy lifestyle
  • Stay up-to-date on the latest developments in health
  • Receive special offers on health books and reports
  • Plus, receive your FREE Bonus Report, Living to 100: What's the secret?

[ Maybe Later ] [ No Thanks ]

Check out these newly released Special Health Reports from Harvard Medical School
Learn How

New Releases

You can't buy good health but you can buy good health information. Check out these newly released Special Health Reports from Harvard Medical School:

Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and personal strength

Positive emotions have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being in numerous scientific studies. On the other hand, chronic anger, worry, and hostility increase the risk of developing heart disease, as people react to these feelings with raised blood pressure and stiffening of blood vessels. But it isn’t easy to maintain a healthy, positive emotional state. People often misjudge what will make them happy and content. Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and inner strength is a guide to the concepts that can help you find well-being and happiness, based on the latest research. This report includes self-assessment tests and step-by-step advice and exercises to help you maximize the positive emotion in your life.

This report was prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School, and clinical psychologist Steven M. Allison, Psy.D. 37 pages. (2013)

  • A science of satisfaction
    • History of positive psychology
    • Positive emotions and the brain
    • Is happiness always good?
  • Defining and measuring happiness
    • Is it genetic?
    • Why pleasure fades
    • The happiness/health connection
    • What makes you happy?
    • Testing your happiness level
  • Your strengths and virtues
    • Understanding personal character
    • Defining virtues and strengths
  • Gratitude
    • Studying gratitude
    • Counting your blessings
  • Savoring pleasure
    • Happiness and choice
  • Flow: Becoming more engaged
    • Matching your skill level
    • Flow at work
    • How to get in the flow
  • Special bonus section: Mindfulness
  • Self-compassion
    • What is self-compassion?
    • The benefits of self-compassion
  • The meaningful life
    • Do unto others
  • When times are tough
    • Positive psychology in psychotherapy
    • Finding assistance
  • Taking positive psychology beyond the individual
    • Positive relationships
    • Positive communities
  • Resources
  • Glossary

Flow: Becoming more engaged

Have you ever been so immersed in what you were doing that all distractions and background chatter just fell away? Nothing existed except the music and your guitar, your skis and the slope, your car and the road. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished 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.

Defining flow

To investigate the flow experience, Csikszentmihalyi used a research method called “experience sampling.” He tracked people’s actions and feelings in their natural setting (outside of a laboratory) and in real time rather than recalled later in interviews or diaries. With this method, participants are beeped at random points during the day and asked to briefly record what they are doing, who they are with, and how they feel.

How do you know if you’re in flow? According to the research, Csikszentmihalyi and others found that flow experiences have several common characteristics.

You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes. As filmmaker George Lucas puts it, talent is “a combination of something you love a great deal and something you can lose yourself in — something that you can start at 9 o’clock, look up from your work and it’s 10 o’clock at night.”

You aren’t thinking about yourself. You aren’t focused on your comfort, and you aren’t wondering how you look or how your actions will be perceived by others. 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. You aren’t thinking about such mundane matters as your shopping list or what to wear tomorrow.

You have clear goals at each moment but aren’t focused on the goal line. Although you may be working toward an ultimate goal, such as earning a graduate degree, making a wedding cake, or winning a chess tournament, that goal is not your primary motivation. Rather, you find the activity itself to be rewarding — mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your academic work, creating tiers of beautiful icing, 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. Flow activities require effort (usually more effort than involved in typical daily experience). 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. Flow is intrinsically rewarding, something you would like to replicate. In a 2005 study, presented at the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium, researchers reported that 60% of people hiking the full length of the Appalachian Trail reported experiencing flow, usually on a daily basis, and more than 80% expressed a desire to hike the trail again. In rating the things they enjoyed, the hikers said they enjoyed the experience and activity itself, as well as using their skills. In contrast, external factors, such as competition with others and the prestige of completing the trail, were rated dead last in what made the experience enjoyable.

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, researchers have found, occur when there is a balance between the challenge of an activity and the skill you have in performing it. For an adult, playing a child’s card game that requires no real skill is not likely to be a flow experience, but playing the next level on a video game that you have partially mastered may be. 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 unfamiliar terrain in a car you feel confident controlling.

Enhancing your ability to experience flow in multiple domains can lead to greater happiness. You can’t force flow, but you can invite it to occur more often, even in areas of life where it might seem unlikely.

The following reviews have been left for this report. Log in and leave a review of your own.

This article has touched on aspects of life that I often think about and it was VERY enlightening. Bob bartolino
Provides a simplified but rambling overview of this somewhat controversial field of psychology, without sufficient depth to really get into the subject References to exercises in some sections, refer to previous or future sections, making for disjointed reading.
This is an excellent publication. It provides very practical approaches and a realistic explanation of positive psychology. It should be read very carefully as it provides information that can benefit everyone in a very clear and understandable manner.
This report provides an excellent introduction to the fairly new field of positive psychology. It provides good coverage of all the basic elements, giving both the scientific rationale as well as empirical evidence from studies, to support the stated conclusions. I'm not sure of the intended scope of this report, but I think there is a need for some enhancements, either by expanding this report or through a supplemental report to provide a practical guide for real life application of the discussed elements. For instance I think a more explicit and detailed treatment of "When things get tough" would be useful to most readers. A cook book approach that spells out questions to ask yourself and steps to take in response to specific answers/conditions, would be very useful. Liberal use of examples is always a good idea. Another subject which should be given the same kind of treatment is "Daily application of positive psychology to enhance one's happiness". I see the current version of this report as a good introduction to the field. I believe the next step is a guide to practical application of its techniques.
The poor reviews of this report seem unfairly or overly critical to me but everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have purchased this report twice and recommended it to others who have also purchased it. If you are a health professional maybe it isn't "enough" for you but it is excellent for a relatively bright, general audience. Just the right amount of serviceable, well presented, properly supported information for me.
Very nice overview to point you in the directions for further reading.
I bought (downloaded) this back in 2011. How can I tell if this is a new edition (substantial new content), minor changes or exactly the same as the product I have already purchased. I think if you reissue the exact same title, prior purchasers should have the opportunity to re-download if there are only minor updates. At least, there should be some way to determine whether it's worth re-purchasing. The copy I have has a copyright date of 2011. The description on this says 2013, but it looks exactly the same.
my opinion is that it is a very useful approach to start to identify ones strengths. It is an improved manner to explore ones self image. It is a positive approach rather than using dx references for abnornal psychology to contemplate self improvement and dealing with contests of ones self esteem
Definitely not worth the price! More information on how to improve one's positive outlook would have been helpful rather than the psychology behind everything. It was repetitive and useless. Wish I had a money back guarantee!
Hello Janice, Thank you for your product review. We are sorry that you did not find the report helpful. We have gone ahead an issued your account a full credit. - Harvard Health Publications
I prefer this material in pamphlett form as opposed to downloading the material on our printer.

More Like This

Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for healthy, happy living

Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for healthy, happy living

All of us probably know some areas where we could boost our health and happiness — perhaps by exercising more, eating healthier, learning stress management techniques, or nipping a bad habit in the bud — but making a change can be daunting. It doesn’t have to be, though. This report will show you how to incorporate simple changes into your life that can reap big rewards.

Learn more »