What is flow?
You probably don’t know exactly what flow means just yet, but we’re pretty sure you’ve experienced some form of flow throughout your life.
Recently, a friend started a board game group for adults – his idea is to get people off video games and actually meet face to face to play games and interact with one another. At first, I thought it was just another excuse for an adult to act as a kid. But then one day he asked me to go to their weekly meeting and it was the most fun I had done in a long time! Three hours just went rushing by! I suddenly remembered how much I enjoyed board games when I was a child. I completely forgot where I was and felt completely absorbed in the activity. Sounds familiar? That is a flow experience.
Conceptualized in 1975 by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the term flow is an important part of the optimal experience – aka well-being. But what exactly is flow? Flow is a state of mind in which we are fully focused on the task at hand, and time and space seem irrelevant. Usually it entails an engaging activity that represents some sort of challenge. The pleasure of performing such task derives from an intrinsic motivation; we do it simply because we enjoy it.
The benefits of flow in your daily life
Flow experiences increase our well-being levels, reduce stress, help us focus on a task and stay motivated. Why do you think having a hobby is so important in our lives? It helps us balance our mind and feel good about ourselves and others. Where do you find flow? Although it’s an individual experience, you can find flow by being with friends and family, at work or even doing volunteer work. Basically all aspects of your life have a potential to become a flow experience, but of course not all do.
Studies have shown that although you do not experience higher levels of happiness during flow, because that would be a distraction of the task at hands, after the experience people report higher levels of well-being, sense of accomplishment, purpose and meaning.
Where can you find flow? It depends on what you love doing. However, some studies have shown that certain experiences provide more flow than others. For instance, reading a book provides a higher flow experience than watching TV – and we argue that some TV shows just help “kill brain cells”. So you might want to think about cutting down on your hours in front of the TV and finding a more meaningful activity.
Positive psychologists often talk about living a full life – that’s our end goal. Pursuing flow experiences on a regular basis can help you lead a life where you can feel awake, engaged and fully involved in your life. Living in the here-and-now as mindfulness teach us. However, you may argue that we cannot live our lives simply doing what we love and makes us happy, and unfortunately we have to agree with you on that one – especially when it comes to some domestic chores! But on and off, at least a few times a week, try to have a flow experience. You will feel relaxed, energized and happier.
How will you know it’s a flow experience?
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s years of research (1999) the experience of flow is quite universal and it has distinct characteristics from other types of experiences. But first we should, as the author did, distinguish the flow experience from the popular “go with the flow”. Going with the flow refers to a spontaneous attitude of letting things happen and not contradicting the events in place. On the other hand, flow experiences are chosen (by us) and involve using our skills, concentration and perseverance.
So what makes a flow experience? Csikszentmihalyi (1999) says that two important characteristics must be present:
1) People should know what to do moment by moment while performing the task
2) The abilities of that person to act match the opportunities for action
Simply put, to feel flow you need to know every step it takes to perform a certain task and how it ends, and also feel confident in your abilities to complete the task. Say you want to do some renovations in your house – change your floor. But you have no idea how to start, what steps and measures to take and you’ve never done anything like that before. Altogether, this hardly qualifies for a flow experience. And you’ll probably do worse, so leave it to the pros!
How can you achieve flow in your life?
Here are a few tips from Csikszentmihalyi’s book on “Finding Flow” and of our own:
1. The activity has a set of goals and requires certain actions.
Take chess, poker, or any kind of sport. The rules help you set your mind to a flow state because there is no need to question them.
2. You’re fully involved in the challenge.
It’s not too hard to overcome but just enough to make you push harder and learn new things. Can you think of anything like that?
3. Find something you’re passionate about.
And that you love doing just for the fun of it.
4. Try to do it at least once a week.
Make time in your schedule so you don’t have to rush and feel stressed about it. Remember leisure and family time is just as important as the long hours you work.
And finally some good news. Adults report often report more flow experiences at work than in their leisure time, this in mainly due to a clear set of rules and goals at work. This means if you love your work, it can also make you happy. As long as you don’t ignore all other aspects of your life such as leisure and time spent with friends and family.