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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.

The First Step to Happier Habits

The First Step to Happier Habits

When scientists discuss wellbeing they look at the domains of PERMA as discussed by Martin Seligman and add H for physical health.

Knowing what is needed to create optimal health and wellbeing is one thing but actually forming the habits of regularly doing what you need to do to thrive is an entirely different skillset. This article is going to take a look at the science of habit formation with the goals of helping you to gain mastery over the tools to be happier by implementing strong habits of mental health.

Habits can be changed if you understand how they work. When you combine the science of habit formation with positive psychology interventions and practices you get:

  • more happiness
  • more positive emotion
  • more wellbeing
  • less rumination
  • less negative emotion

Habit formation is a function of neurology. It happens in the brain and is reflected through all the systems of your body.  In science the patterns of habit look like this:

In yoga traditions dating back thousands of years, we see the same pattern with different words:

Samkara is a memory, conscious or unconscious. Sometimes the memory is at the genetic level. The samskara is in the causal body which is also sometimes called the subtle body where the essence of the individual is enlivened.

Another way of thinking of this is:

Any time you want to change a habit the key is to replace an old belief with a new one. This happens right before the action/karma/routine phase.


One way to do this is through willpower. Contrary to what many people believe, willpower is not an asset but a learnable skill. It’s true that it can feel depleted over the course of the day. This can be largely due to fatigue, hunger, thirst or even limiting beliefs about yourself and your ability to resist temptation.

When I think about forming habits I like to draw on advice from the experts. These strategies are super helpful and there are lots to choose from:

  1. Pairing. Attache something you want to do to something you already do. Keep the vitamins you always forget beside your toothbrush. Allow yourself to binge-watch Netflix when you are on the treadmill.
  2. Reward. The classic star chart. Keep a chart. When you have 30 gold stars get a reward. Ensure the reward aligns with your goal (ie Don’t reward 30 days of running with an ice cream, instead choose a reword of new running pants or a fitbit)
  3. Streak. This refers to making a chain of days in a row. If you use Insight Timer to time your meditations it will show you your number of uninterrupted days. When you have 99 in a row it’s motivating to not have to start over.
  4. Unpairing. Sometimes you will only exhibit an undesired behavior in a certain context. For example may people only smoke when they are drinking. If you decide that you can do one or the other but not both together you have successfully unpaired the habit.
  5. Accountability. Get help. Find some friends who will help keep you accountable. When my husband decided he wanted to work out every day, I would text him a photo of me at the gym, in yoga, or hiking. This took advantage of his competitive nature and got him hooked so he could respond to my texts with one of his own.
  6. Stick. Sometimes the carrot just doesn’t work  If rewards aren’t your thing try a crazy punishment. If you are a republican pledge to donate $500 to the democrats if you don’t stick to your diet. This negative reinforcement tied to how you define yourself can be very successful!

Changing habits begins with a belief in the possibility of change. If you need more motivation to get started, try these great books.

Parenting Teens Amid a Teen Mental Health Crisis

Parenting Teens Amid a Teen Mental Health Crisis

The World Health Organisation believes that  depression will become the number one cause of the global disease burden by 2030. Mental health is a growing concern globally. As parents, we are expecting our children to change the world but we aren’t giving them the tools they need to make this happen. Days like World Mental Health Day shine a spotlight on awareness. Bell’s Let’s Talk has us talking about it. We need to also do something, but parents are given a mixed message about what this is.

Give them space, but don’t let them spend too much time alone.

They need friends to flourish but the wrong friends can cause social stress and anxiety.

Are you pushing too hard? Or maybe you aren’t pushing enough?

If you advocate are you a helicopter? If you don’t help them are you negligent?

How much technology is too much? Is not enough possible?

Did watching 13 Reasons Why cause this funk your daughter is in?

Is she eating enough? If you ask her about her eating will it cause an eating disorder?

Is he gay? Maybe he wants to use “they”. If ask ask will I make it worse?

When I heard Lynn Lyons, anxiety expert say “anxiety- if your child has it, it’s your fault. If it was nature- you. If it was nurture- also you” it helped. I have one child with autism, one with hypothyroid, one with Crohn’s disease and one with dyslexia. I come from a family who don’t historically manage anxiety and stress well. I don’t need to know the why; the genetics, the environment, the things that happen in life outside my control. I need to know how to best help my children be confident, kind, and curious.

My best advice to other moms trying to navigate parenting without a GPS, figure out what you want them to be then get out of their way and let them while keeping in mind:

  1. Connection Matters– No not internet connection. Although your teens will claim that internet connectivity is the most important type of connectivity actual human connection is one key to mental wellness. With teens, friendships can become all encompassing. I like the advice of child psychologist and parenting expert Gordon Neufeld who reminds us“ Absolutely missing in peer relationships are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.” Children need to have an adult mentor in their lives who they feel unconditionally attached to. Parents can help curate these relationships with people who model the values, work ethic, and lifestyle they want for their children.
  2. Kids Need a Purpose Too– Gone are the days where “because I said so” was a reasonable answer. We all need to feel that we matter; that our lives have meaning. Kids too! They want to know why they need to learn math, how science will help them become a soccer star, and how eating too much sugar affects their bodies. They need to understand their value as a person. And if they develop a passion, they need space to follow it (even if playing a viseo game or making YouTube videos seems like wasting time to you). As Patrick Cook-Deegan at The Greater Good Science Center said “Teens are naturally driven to seek new experiences—and that may be the key to helping them develop a sense of purpose in life.”
  3. Let Them Be Themselves– For teens, figuring out who they are is confusing. They thought the liked certain clothes and hairstyles and music and food but then they started to realize that they liked these because their families were pleased when they looked a certain way, ate certain things, or behaved a certain way. In order to test out what they really like they need to put a little distance between themselves and their parents. According to Dr. Shefali Tsabary, author of The Conscious Parent, “Dysfunctional teenagers don’t emerge overnight. They are the result of years of subjugated authenticity and false promises. They have been dying a slow death and now have to fight a daily battle just to feel alive. No teen wants to be “bad.” They simply don’t know any other way to be. The child who grows up to be a defiant teen does so because of a lack of authenticity, a lack of containment, or a lack of connection to the parents—or a combination of these.”
  4. Show Don’t Tell– You want gratitude, model gratitude. You want happy children, work on being a happy parent. You can’t tell your child to calm down if you are yelling at them. Don’t want sarcasm? Stop being passive aggressive. If you lose your cool, model apologizing. If you make a mistake, model owning it. If children never see their parents fail they will grow up believing perfectionism is attainable and when they make a mistake they will feel small and ashamed.
  5. Spend Daily Time on Wellbeing Boosting Practices– Think of meditation, walking in nature, reframing, or learning about your strengths as flexing your happiness muscle. We go to the gym regularly. Take care of your mental health in the same way. Waiting until something goes wrong makes it a whole lot harder. Proactive mental habits will help the healthy and buffer those experiencing a mental health challenge. If your teen is intersted to join you, great! If not, that’s ok too- happiness is contagious. If you boost yours, it will impact theirs!

Have a teen story that might help or inspire another parent who’s about to hit bottom? Please share!


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 Focusing on What’s “Right” is Positive Psychology’s Best Parenting Strength

Why Focusing on What’s “Right” is Positive Psychology’s Best Parenting Strength

In her parenting book The Strength Switch, Lea Waters looks at parenting through the lens of strengths. Strengths-based parenting is a technique that encourages you to see what’s “right” about your children. Discovering and fostering their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses and fixing their areas of detriment is a somewhat novel approach. But are we doing children a disservice by turning a blind-eye to some aspects while embracing others?

What defines a strength?

It’s important to be clear on what Professor Waters defines as a strength. Strengths need three elements:

  1. Performance (being good at something)
  2. Energy (felling good while doing it)
  3. High use (choosing to do it regularly)

Based on this definition, being good at something alone doesn’t mean it’s a strength. When I was a child I was a gifted dancer and a competitive gymnast. Dance was something I did on the beach, in the grocery store, and in the kitchen. Even after three hours of ballet I would still want more. Gymnastics on the other hand was something I was talented at. I was naturally strong and flexible, and I learned knew tricks and routines with ease. It took me quite few years of actively pursuing both dance and gymnastics to choose dance. One day I recognized that I really never enjoyed gymnastics despite my skill. Looking through Professor Waters criterion, dance was a strength for me and gymnastics was not.

Strengths Change as a Child Grows

Different strengths present at different times child development. In the early years Waters recommends parents let children develop passions by providing low-pressure opportunities of discovery- let them play! In the middle years, starting at pre- adolescence the role of the parent changes. During these years providing opportunities and resources to support the development of areas of identified strength is what helps children learn how to use their strength. This is the busiest time for most parents where children prepare for the demands of adulthood but don’t have adequately formed brains to make good decisions and make plans for their future. We also see some strengths pruned in this phase which can be hard on a parent who has enjoyed the relationships with other parents at a specific activity. As a parent your instinct might be to encourage your child to keep going at a tennis or soccer but the important thing to do in these situations is to help your child decide and then support their decision. In late adolescence the brain development allows teens to use their strengths more consistently and appropriately. This is the beginning of high performance becoming part of your child’s unique identity. These years are where kids reap the rewards of their areas of strength.

Helping Avoid Strength Distractions

As parents we want to help our children, but often. in the age of the helicopter-parent, helping turns into doing it for them. You know you are off track in your parenting if you’ve become more of a coach/agent/manager than a mom or dad. If you see yourself falling into this trap, using your desire to help in a better way will help you to avoid a major parenting pitfall. Helping your child stay focused without becoming a taskmaster means teaching them to:

  • Recognize the difference between useful stress and dangerous levels of stress
  • See emotions as a useful part of our physiology- encourage your kids to feel them and express them
  • Make their own decisions and choices
  • Resist impulses that are distracting or detrimental

What You Focus on Matters

Parenting through strengths becomes essential when you have a child who has an area of challenge. I have four children, one with severe autism and one with dyslexia. If I spend all my parenting time focusing on the things my daughter with autism and son with dyslexia need help with I might think I am helping them to overcome their greatest challenges. But what am I missing? My son is fabulously creative in design and art, he has a brilliant memory and a gift for spotting details that most people don’t notice. My daughter has a keen sense of smell, a memory for music, and she enjoys nature. When I spend regular time encouraging them to use their strengths they can see themselves as successful, vital, individuals. This positivity provides a foundation that protects them from the epidemic of anxiety and depression that is challenging our youth. Knowing their strengths fosters resilience, optimism and a sense of achievement. To learn more about strengths-based parenting, I recommend looking at Dr. Water’s work and familiarizing yourself with another type of strengths, the VIA character strengths. Parenting can be both more difficult than you ever imagined and more rewarding. If you are struggling, reach out. Form a parenting book club and maybe spend a little time thinking about YOUR strengths too!