The positive psychology movement is one of the fastest growing areas of scientific psychological research today. Positive psychology isn’t about viewing life through a rosy lens, or optimistically ignoring real issues and problems in hopes that they’ll simply disappear through sheer force of intent.
Rather, positive psychology focuses on increasing wellbeing by harnessing people’s innate strengths, personal interests and talents. It’s about creating a life worth living, and using rigorously tested scientific methods to achieve maximum happiness and a sense of fulfillment.
In their seminal 2005 study about happiness, Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues found that happiness flows from three distinct sources:
- 50% of our capacity for happiness is genetic
- 10% of happiness is caused by our life circumstances
- 40% of our happiness comes from intentional, voluntary activities
So if 60% of our happiness depends on factors beyond our control, what about the other 40%?
That’s where flow comes in.
Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi conceptualised the psychological theory of flow. Put simply, a state of flow occurs when you’re fully absorbed in an activity in the present moment. You feel focused, energised, and incredibly productive.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow occurs when you’re “so intensely involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
The experience of flow has three distinct components:
- Goals are clear and achievable
- The task itself provides immediate feedback
- The only priority is the activity at hand – all other concerns become secondary
Creating the conditions for flow
Although you might assume that flow occurs naturally during leisure time, research shows that people are more likely to experience a flow state whilst at work, school, or during other physically or cognitively demanding activities.
Flow states have traditionally been associated with the arts and sports performance. For instance, a painter might lose all track of time whilst creating a new mural, or an elite athlete may become immersed in their training schedule to the exclusion of all other distractions.
Yet flow can be found – and harnessed – in the simplest of tasks. Cooking, gardening, and time spent in nature are all activities that create conditions for flow to occur. Even the most mundane, repetitive tasks can induce flow.
Take for example 70-year old Yolanda ‘Yo Yo’ Baker, who has been crafting bespoke mirrored disco balls for the past 47 years. Thought to be the last artisan of her kind in the US, Yo Yo perfectly sums up the concept of flow at work, and the immense personal satisfaction that can be gained from a (very monotonous!) job:
Knowing when you’ve achieved flow
- Intense, focused concentration on the present moment
- Action and awareness merge to become one
- Reflective self-consciousness is reduced, or absent
- Personal control (agency) over the activity or situation is heightened
- Subjective experience of time is altered, and moments fly by
- Completing the task becomes its own reward – there’s no need for external validation
Although you might experience each of these states separately, it is only when all 6 occur simultaneously in combination that a flow state can arise. Flow is something that often occurs spontaneously, however a recent study identified 7 ‘flow conditions’ that increase the likelihood of experiencing flow:
- Knowing what to do
- Knowing how to do it
- Knowing how well you are doing
- Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
- High perceived challenges
- High perceived skills
- Freedom from distractions
Challenges to maintaining a flow state
The matching of your skillset to the relative challenge of a task is crucial to achieving flow. If your skills and experience in a particular area are high, but the demands presented by an activity is low, boredom and apathy are likely to result – there’s no challenge. Likewise, if a task is well outside your current skillset or knowledge, you’re more likely to worry about executing the task rather than trusting your ability to get it done.
It’s when you’re feeling competent, in control, and excited about the prospect of completing an activity that flow is most likely to happen. This is especially so if the activity is slightly beyond your skills and abilities, and you need to flex your intellect, creativity and/or physical capabilities to complete the challenge.
The benefits of flow
Experiencing flow fulfills our fundamental psychological needs, and is a strong predictor of overall wellbeing and sustained happiness. Being immersed in flow whilst completing a task or project shows us that action produces progress, leading to feelings of competence and satisfaction.
By constantly refining our skills and putting them to good use, flow can induce feelings of optimism, enthusiasm, self-confidence and passionate motivation. Many activities provide the optimal conditions for flow to occur:
- Work projects
- Sporting activities
- Musical performance
- Public speaking
Counselling and flow
There are certain counselling techniques that can help you harness your capacity for flow. In particular, Mindfulness-Based Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy have all demonstrated effectiveness in helping people achieve a flow state. These evidence-based therapeutic methods help people to enhance their ability to remain focused and present in the moment, clarify their goals and develop skills in directing attention towards the task at hand. General counselling is a great place to start if you’re interested in nurturing your creativity, productiveness and overall wellbeing.
We all want to lead a happy, productive and intrinsically rewarding life. Experiencing flow at work, home and at play can lead to a lasting sense of achievement, self-confidence and overall wellbeing.
Positive psychology flow research resources
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2014). Toward a psychology of optimal experience (pp. 209-226). Springer Netherlands.
Csíkszentmihályi, M., Khosla, S., & Nakamura, J. (2017). Flow at Work. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths‐Based Approaches at Work, 99-109.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2004). A mindfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations. Behaviour Therapy, 35(4), 707-723.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer Netherlands.
Ilies, R., Wagner, D., Wilson, K., Ceja, L., Johnson, M., DeRue, S., & Ilgen, D. (2017). Flow at Work and Basic Psychological Needs: Effects on Well‐Being. Applied Psychology, 66(1), 3-24.
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111.
Mao, Y., Roberts, S., Pagliaro, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Bonaiuto, M. (2016). Optimal experience and optimal identity: A multinational study of the associations between flow and social identity. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.