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:
- 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.
- 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.
- There is a clear goal.
- Action and awareness of action are merging. You are able to participate and reflect on your participation almost simultaneously.
- You are absorbed in the task. There is engagement and there is not distraction.
- You have a sense of personal control. You are impacting the outcome with your effort in a palpable way.
- Your lose any self-consciousness. You are not thinking about how others respond to what you are doing, you are just doing.
- Time seems to either stand still or pass quickly. There is a warped sense of noticing the passage of time in a positive way.
- 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?
- 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)
- Dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex quiets– This is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions such as impulse control
- Medial pre-frontal cortex becomes highly active
- 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 cognition, 12(2), 231-256.