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The Science of Flow- Why Getting “In the Zone” Matters

The Science of Flow- Why Getting “In the Zone” Matters

This week an amazing group of professionals gathered at Claremont Graduate College for the Western Positive Psychology Association’s conference delving into Evidence-Based Applications in Positive Psychology. I was lucky to present 2 sessions.

 10 Years of Positive Education discussed the top 10 mistakes my team at the Institute of Positive Education sees as they reflect on our decade of delivering positive education and what successes ensued once we learned from our mistakes (a little growth mindset modelling). In Is Wellbeing Enough? I led a discussion about measurement of wellbeing and its role in organizational psychology (because what gets measured matters!). Presenting to such an engaged group of Positive Psychology experts certainly had me feeling in the flow which was another focus of the day- recognizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – “Father of Flow” and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management who will be retiring at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year.  Mike shared his story beginning with reflections on how his family’s displacement post WW2 led to a serendipitous meeting of Carl Jung where the seeds of his passion for psychology were planted. He also touched on his hope and perspectives for the Future of Positive Psychology. This post will delve into the science of flow and why it impacts wellbeing.

According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 states of engagement. We know that engaged living is a predictor of wellbeing, life satisfaction, and enjoyment at school or work.

A flow experience has nine characteristics:

  1. What you are doing balances challenge with skill level. Like Goldilocks, the task cannot be too hard or too simple- there is a sweet spot of difficult but not too difficult that encourages flow and is just right.
  2. The task allows for some level of direct and immediate feedback- when walking a balance beam your feedback is either falling off, staying on, or almost falling and then recovering. The feedback is part of the process.
  3. There is a clear goal.
  4. Action and awareness of action are merging. You are able to participate and reflect on your participation almost simultaneously.
  5. You are absorbed in the task. There is engagement and there is not distraction.
  6. You have a sense of personal control. You are impacting the outcome with your effort in a palpable way.
  7. Your lose any self-consciousness. You are not thinking about how others respond to what you are doing, you are just doing.
  8. Time seems to either stand still or pass quickly. There is a warped sense of noticing the passage of time in a positive way.
  9. The task itself is intrinsically rewarding. You aren’t there for the medal or gold star, you are there because the activity that gets you to the medal is important.


When people talk about flow state, they often use terms like “in the zone”, “total absorption”, “feeling at one” or “peak performance”. As  Csikszentmihalyi said in his book Finding Flow.

” Contrary to what we usually believe, the best movements in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times…The best moments usually occur is a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.”


What happens to Your Brain  When You Are In a Flow State?

  1. Transient hypofrontality– the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest and other parts and functions of our brain to become more predominant (like creativity)
  2. Dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex quiets– This is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions such as impulse control
  3. Medial pre-frontal cortex becomes highly active
  4. The neurochemistry of flow floods your body with performance enhancing chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, serotonin allowing for amplified learning, motivation, and creativity.

Often thought of as a solitary experience, we now know that flow can be experienced together. In fact the flow experience is quite contagious- when we see flow happening on the soccer pitch or at a musical performance, we get a bit of the beneficial chemicals for ourselves.

Interestingly. even though most people would might prefer leisure to work, people experience flow 54% while working compared to 18% at play according to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies.

Want More Flow?

  • Minimize distractions
  • Seek feedback on your performance
  • Have clear goals
  • Find the sweet spot of challenge and skill
  • Reflect on when and where you feel flow most
  • Give yourself time- rushing is a flow-blocker

I’m compiling a list of activities that seem most connected to flow. Send me yours and I will add it:

dance     tennis     swimming     horseback riding     drawing     singing     tennis    playing an instrument     public speaking     juggling




Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.

Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and cognition12(2), 231-256.

Positive Education in a Nutshell

Positive Education in a Nutshell


Historically psychologists have dealt with mental health deficiency or mental illness.

One pioneer, Martin Seligman, recognized that the absence of metal illbeing was not the same as mental wellbeing; if you remove unhappiness you don’t get happiness. Thus began the science of positive psychology, a proactive area of mental health designed to help an individual to flourish.

What is Flourishing?

To flourish is to find fulfillment in our lives, accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks, and connecting with others at a deeper level—in essence, living the “good life” (Seligman, 2011). Flourishing as an individual means feeling good and living a life that feels meaningful and impacts the community around you for the greater good. It is not the absence of emotions like fear, anxiety or jealousy that might be considered negative emotions nor is does flourishing mean you are happy all the time. When an individual is flourishing they are experiencing more positive emotions (love, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe) and shorten the rumination over negative ones.

How do you learn the skills required to Flourish?

Until recently, learning how to flourish was left to chance. Psychologists or counselors sometimes helped. Religion, yoga, or deep conversations held in salons by academics might touch on some of the topics that fall under this umbrella. The problem with leaving wellbeing to chance is there’s a greater chance that it won’t happen than it will.

Researchers now agree (for the most part) on PERMA or PERMA-H being part of the equation to optimal wellbeing.

P = positive emotions (experience more of them intentionally)

E = engagement (immersion in a task, job, or hobby you love)

R = relationships (a sense of belonging and support to and from family, peers, and friends)

M = meaning (understanding the deeper why behind your actions or why you are on this planet)

A =accomplishment (having ambition and goals) 

H= health (enough sleep, exercise & nutrition)


This is where positive education plays a key role.

What Exactly is Positive Education?

Most simply put, positive education puts wellbeing at the heart of education.

It started almost ten years ago at Geelong Grammar School, just south of Melbourne (which is where I am as I write this). Best practice teaching combined with positive psychology to embed the skills of positive psychology across an entire school organization from top to bottom. The GGS model has created a common language, a culture, and way to help students, educators, and community members like parents and support staff to thrive.




Positive education is what happens when you teach the entire organization of a school to flourish.

Evidence is showing that positive education programs decrease stress while increasing self-esteem, optimism and self-efficacy. Students who are flourishing exercise resilience and are more engaged in their learning. But it’s not just about the students. Teachers have the highest reported stress levels of any career including first-responders and physicians or nurses. Positive education helps teachers too. By using the PERMA H model the whole school learns and lives differently.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing resources (from reading lists to worksheet downloads) to help your school get started. If you want to make sure you get access to these, please join the Positive Minds International mailing list and join our growing group of people making a difference in the wellbeing of children.

The 40% Rule

The 40% Rule


It’s hard to define and even more difficult to measure. Until recently psychologists and researchers wouldn’t even use the word. Instead, terms like subjective well-being or positive emotion were substituted.

You would think that humans could agree that a basic goal of life is to experience more happiness and yet on podcasts, in the media, and in everyday conversation I regularly hear people making statements like “it’s not healthy to be happy all the time” or “creativity is born from discomfort, if I was happy I would lose my edge”.

While it may be true that some people use anger to ignite action I think many people would be surprised by how much more creative, successful, and flourishing their lives might be if they allowed themselves to prioritize positive emotions.

The science of positive psychology explores optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive according to Dr. Martin Seligman. When I think of thriving I include an entire spectrum of positive emotions appropriate to different situations as listed by Barbara Fredrickson in her book Positivity

Her list includes:











The Rule


We know from research that approximately 50% of our potential for happiness lies in our genetics. If your parents were depressed, anxious, or tended to ruminate on the negative, you might inherit this potential. The reverse is also true; if your parents were happy-go-lucky types who see the glass as half-full, you may have a greater natural inclination toward happiness. The chemicals released by our brain when we encounter any stimulus (a large dog jumps out at you barking when you run or you smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies) are not standardized across all people. Some brains are primed to pump out more of the happiness chemicals where others distribute these more sparingly. Some brains have an overly active fight or flight system compared to others. This is the first 50%.


A tenth of your happiness involves life circumstances like having shelter, food, and safety. This does not mean that people born into extreme poverty or living in dangerous situations cannot experience happiness. If you have ever seen children playing in the slums of India or two terminal cancer patients falling in love you know that happiness is possible even in extreme situations however there is an impact on the ease of experiencing happiness that accounts for about 10%.


What’s exciting about the research is the 40%. This bit of happiness potential is entirely up to YOU. It is impacted by the thoughts you think, the people you surround yourself with, the food you eat, and the beliefs you choose. Taking regular time to reflect, to incorporate happiness-boosting activities like gratitude, mindfulness, and even smiling more into your day can change this number.


Image from The Happiness Reset by Tamara Lechner (forthcoming)

I think of happiness as being in constant motion. It’s like a spiral. At any time yours is either spiraling upward or downward. The trick to using your 40% to it’s greatest potential is this:

  1. Learn to recognize when you start a downward spiral.
  2. Have a toolkit of simple things you can do at that moment to turn your spiral around.
  3. Spend more time trending up than spiraling down.

It’s quite simple really. It takes effort that is conscious and consistent at first, but eventually, it becomes second nature like driving a car or riding a bike.

What do you do to turn your downward spiral around? Happiness increases when your share so please comment with any useful habits or tips you might offer.






Is There a Workout for Your Mental Wellness?

Is There a Workout for Your Mental Wellness?

For many years scientists believed that the brain stopped developing new neural pathways after the first few years of life. This meant that critical periods of development were from birth to 5 years of age and brains would only be plastic during youth. The new science of neuroplasticity has identified the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This phenomenon explains to the brain’s ability to adjust and cope. F We’ve all heard the stories of the miraculous recovery of speech after a stroke where the speech center of the brain was entirely damaged- this is an example of neuroplasticity at work. Sometimes symptoms of disease and impairment can be entirely mitigated by the brains ability to reorganize using brain workouts or brain retraining. This is also true for anxiety. depression, and unhelpful stress. Where happiness is concerned the question of nature and nurture left us asking “how much of my happiness is up to me”? The latest positive psychology research is showing that as much as 40% of our experience of positive or negative is entirely up to our mental habits. What you focus on increases. If you are looking for negative, you will likely find it. So retraining your brain to see the positive makes sense!

Why does this matter?

Many people have limitations about themselves that they believe. Having a history of depression or mental illness in the family might previously have meant you were genetically predisposed for problems. The new research is showing that just isn’t true. If you’ve ever said or thought “I’m just not that smart” by adding the word YET and doing a little work you can maximize your brain’s capacity to learn and change and adapt. Do you need an app or screen to change your mindset or the amount of positive emotions you experience? Of course not! But at a time when technology is getting a tom of negative attention in the media, I love reminding people that technology is a tool. Like all things it can be used to help you feel worse or better. These apps all promote healthy mental growth by strengthening your mental muscle!   Check out these brain changing apps:


This memory app focuses on paying attention, problem solving, and flexibility of thinking. The constantly changing games are timed and competitive. Learn more about Luminosity



The Jiyo app connects to the Apple Health App to track your habits and suggest articles, videos and information designed to promote your greatest well-being. Ranging from meditation, finance, relationships and finding meaning and purpose the content helps identify and foster your unique strengths. Learn more about Jiyo


Happify translates the science of happiness into online activities that can be completed right from your phone or computer. With the advice of a variety of happiness experts, Happify has created a platform to engage in writing activities and games designed to increase happiness. Learn more about Happify

CogniFit Brain Fitness

Designed by neuroscientists this app begins by testing memory and concentration followed by games designed specifically to boost ultimate brain function. Learn more about CogniFit

Greater Good in Action

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has developed a platform called Greater Good in Action to help people engage in science-based practices for a meaningful life. Based on the latest positive psychology research participants use simple activities to that enhance skills like that increase mental well-being like compassion and gratitude. Learn more about GGIA    

Super Better

Super Better has gamified brain training for happiness. Complete quests using activities designed to build happiness-boosting skills. Designed to hook you with quick wins to ignite your curiosity and keep you on the path to greater well-being.   Learn more about Super Better

Why Well-Being at School is the Elephant in the Classroom

Why Well-Being at School is the Elephant in the Classroom

The Problem

We all know that well-being (social intelligence, mindfulness, self-regulation, grit, resilience, etc.) are important.  Mental health is the number one issue in schools today as identified by our teachers, principals, superintendents, directors of education and trustees according to the Ontario School Board in 2013.[1] The epidemic of anxiety, stress, and teen depression is alarming. We are expecting this generation of students to change the world, yet we aren’t giving them all the tools they will need to be successful.

Right now, many schools are making great strides towards changing this. Across Canada we see mindfulness programs introduced, growth mindset curriculum launched, and psychology topics like gratitude and grit being applauded and encouraged.

Despite these massive efforts, mental well-being remains a tricky topic. How much is needed? (More) If you talk about it too much can it make it worse rather than better? (Yes) Are some methods more effective than others? (Absolutely!)

Let’s start by defining exactly what’s needed. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

When an individual grows or develops in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment it’s called flourishing.

We’re aiming for well-being so students and staff can flourish.

Another Little Problem

Most schools are teaching tools. Gratitude is a tool. Growth mindset is a tool. Getting enough sleep is a mental health tool. Social capital is also a tool. But what if the students, and let’s face it the staff too, what if they are given the entire toolkit but they don’t have the blueprint to know what they are making with these tools?

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Abraham Maslow


It’s time to give both teachers and students a blueprint to go with their tools. Every problem doesn’t need a hammer.


One More Problem

Everyone wants to know how their child’s school ranks on standardized test scores and rankings like the Fraser Institute School Rankings for Canadian schools. School blogs, magazines, administration, students and their families all broadcast how many students got accepted to an Ivy school but nobody is talking about how many students, both those too overcome by their stress and depression to be successful and those coping with massive amount of depression, stress, and anxiety and still appearing successful,  are eventually falling prey to the lack of balance in their lives. Is it really success to land a place at Stanford or Harvard and drop out second semester? Is it a success to practice grit through med school only to have a massive breakdown and never practice medicine? Defining success to include well-being and balance is key. Research says that success and productivity drop off after 55 hours of work in a week. Many students, whose work includes not only their time in class and their homework but also their extra-curricular sports, clubs and volunteer hours are just depleted physically and mentally.

What Do Schools Need?

We cannot expect teachers to be experts at mental well-being. It wasn’t part of their bachelor’s degree in education curriculum and even if they have an area of professional development beyond their degree requirements, that only provides their students with a really useful tool. Without the entire school system continuing to teach these skills until they are embedded fully into a child’s default brain system, it just isn’t enough. It’s like watering a plant really well for one year and expecting it to thrive. Is it even the school’s role? Some believe that parents should be the primary source of well-being education. Let’s assume that we can all agree that kids with more positive emotion and less mental deficit are better students- they can be more engaged, focused, and successful (and research shows this is true). It would seem counterintuitive for schools to not deliver well-being education.

Well-Being education needs to be:


When something is quantifiable it allows us to know if it is working. It stops time and dollars from being wasted on curriculum, speakers, and lessons that aren’t makinga positive impact. How can you measure well-being? Until recently it hasn’t really been easy to do unless your school is part of a research program or study. Who had time to measure and what exactly was being measured? Recent innovations like the Flourishing at School by People Diagnostic out of Australia are changing this. This innovative cloud-based software solution uses a survey as an indicator of mental health, useful for proactive wellbeing interventions at both an individual and collective level. uses a positive psychology approach to assess the degree to which individuals have developed the “pillars” of good mental health to stay well and optimise quality of life.


Children can learn to recognize the difference between useful stress and dangerous levels of stress. They are quite capable of turning a negative downward spiral around. They are also able to form social connections with supportive peers and adults who can be mentors. Starting early teaching tools and providing a blueprint for mental wellness is important. School counselors are overwhelmed dealing with the problems and have very little time to help prevent the problems. If schools put well-being as one of the basic required skills for all students, we can prevent the epidemic of poor mental health from continuing.


Conversations about mental health more public than ever. Movements like WE Day have made strides in taking topics that used to be hidden into mainstream media and everyday conversation. Talking about suicide, bullying, cutting, and eating disorders is no longer taboo yet talking alone isn’t enough. A whole school model like Geelong Grammar School’s Learn, Live, Teach, Embed model opens conversations, teaches science-backed skills and fosters wellness across an entire community. Until everyone across a campus (parents too) has the same language and understanding of wellness, the depth required to impact community mental health cannot be reached.


Wellness is unique. Everyone’s blueprint is slightly different. There are seven domains proven to impact long-term happiness, success, and resilience according to recent research. The tools to boost an individual’s experience of each domain are universal. The blueprint, however, must be customized to match motivation, age, and habit formation tendency.

The problems around delivering well-being at school haven’t changed. But the number of tools available and experts willing to assist is growing. If your school needs help designing and implementing a program, ask for expert help from Positive Minds International and our team of experts or your local positive psychology practitioner.



[1] https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5894ceede58c62b3280ff685/1486147328328/Leading-Mentally-Health-Schools.pdf

Why Worry is the Biggest Time Waste Ever (and how to stop)

Why Worry is the Biggest Time Waste Ever (and how to stop)

Unlike many things in the positive psychology realm, worry is quite easy to define. Worry is a chain of negative thoughts about the same or different topics that can have negative consequences for you in the future if a solution is not reached. Worrying is future thinking worst-case scenario planning and it leads to catastrophic levels of anxiety.
It’s the “what if” thoughts that suck us into worry and anxiety. We’re allowing our imagination to become unleashed and creating multiple bad scenarios of what might happen. When my children were little the only rule we regularly followed in our home was no “what if” questions.
“What if” questions are fine if you are using them to create a plan. For example, if you think “what if my car breaks down and I don’t have anybody to call” then you make the plan of buying roadside assistance your what if was useful. It leads you to productive problem-solving.
When worry isn’t helpful is when it escalates to crisis mongering, a term psychologists have coined to describe worrying that keeps spiraling out of control without stopping. It the “what if I am all alone in my car breaks down and nobody comes and it’s cold and there’s a snowstorm and my phone dies” sort of thinking that is not at all helpful in resolving potential future problems or obstacles.
Worry comes from fear. Psychologist Susan Jeffers teaches 5 truths about fear.
1) fear accompanies growth
2) action is the way out of fear
3) every time you move past fear you get greater self-confidence
4) you are not the only one who gets scared
5)  pushing through fear is less frightening over the long run than the feeling of helplessness that accompanies inaction
Worrying about the future doesn’t help you to be a better problem solver, in fact, it induces that fight or flight stress state and impairs your rational thinking.
There’s always an exception to the rule and this exception is when you are in an immediate life-threatening short-term situation. If I’m going to step out onto a busy street when worry kicks in and says maybe I shouldn’t do that without looking both ways, it is useful.

For Kids

According to Lynn Lyons; child anxiety expert, one big problem that happens when children don’t learn how to deal with their worry is it predicts anxiety and depression later in life. In general children today seem to have the ability to cope with more stress than any previous generation. The fact they are coping so well leads parents and educators to think that a child is doing fine when, in fact, they are on the edge of overwhelm. What can adults do to help?
  • stop the use of words that catastrophize like always, never, nobody, and everybody
  • allow them to take a movement breaks-the flood of stress chemicals that your brain sends out when your body is worried make it really hard to think to act well and to make good decisions so encourage a little shake it off moment helps
  • model appropriate stress responses by saying “I’m feeling stressed- let’s take a break” or “this is hard, let’s take a couple of deep breaths before we continue”
  • take a mindful moment– mindfulness and meditation directly counteract all the physical stress responses

At Work

What about at work there are some things that do deserve a little worry?
  • designate a time- a limited duration where you actually give yourself permission to worry but when it’s over it’s over you need to stop
  • hire a lawyer (not literally) but imagine you were presenting your worry case to a judge. Play the role of the opposition and see what the other side would say. Allow yourself to play devil’s advocate to your own worry system and maybe, in the end, it won’t seem like you’ve got so much to worry about
  • if you can’t worry less, worry more- waaay more. Make your worst-case scenario absolutely ridiculous. Allow that snowball of worries to keep going until it’s so big that it’s obvious it’s not real- it’s all in your head

I come from a long line of worriers. If worrying was a sport my family would have some gold medals! The thing is, worriers sometimes feel like their worry on your behalf is useful (it isn’t). They also think that a caring person should worry about others (they shouldn’t). Your worry is zapping your joy and limiting your ability to engage in life. Every moment you are worried about the future you are missing whatever is happening in the present. I often equate worrying to paying the interest before you have the loan. Decide it’s time to stop worrying. you’ll thank yourself!

If I had my life to live over, I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I’d have fewer imaginary ones. ~Don Herold