Flow & Happiness

What is “flow” and why is it important for happiness?

First, let me explain what “flow” is.  “Flow” involves both an activity and a state of mind.

When you’re in a “flow state of mind”:

  • You lose track of time
  • You’re totally engrossed in what you’re doing
  • You’re not consciously thinking about yourself–in other words, you’re totally un-self conscious
  • You’re working toward a goal

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, you’re right!  The key difference is a “flow activity” and working toward a goal.

A “flow activity”:

  • Is useful and challenging, which makes it intrinsically rewarding
  • Helps you progress toward a goal
  • Provides feedback to help gauge the effectiveness of your efforts

(Examples of flow activities in the next post–Flow Activities!)

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a flow experience involves “deep concentration,  an optimal balance of skill & challenge, and a sense of control and satisfaction.”  You can watch Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk here:  Flow:  The Secret of Happiness.

The key to flow is finding the optimal balance of skill set and challenge–you shouldn’t be overly frustrated, but the challenge shouldn’t be too easy, either.

A flow activity involves the development of a skill set, such that the challenge of the activity evolves over time as your skill set improves.  In this way, flow activities lead to growth and discovery.

So why is flow an important component of happiness?

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s original research involved studying happiness using the “Experience Sampling Method,” or ESM.  Using ESM, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi found that people are happiest when they are fully absorbed in the activity at hand.  Further, happiness is enhanced when the activity is optimally challenging.

This research was revolutionary in that it was the first time scientists asked people throughout the day, “How happy are you right now and what are you doing?”

Using ESM, the researchers were able to correlate happiness with the activity at hand, rather than simply asking, “What makes you happy?”  As you know from Dr. Gilbert’s research (read my post Finding Happiness), human beings are poor predictors of what truly makes us happy.  It turns out the activity was not as important as feeling fully immersed and optimally challenged.

By finding your flow activities and regularly engaging in a flow state of mind, you’re building happiness into your everyday life.

Flow is more important for overall happiness than the things we often think will make us happy, such as a vacation, nicer home, new car, winning the lottery, etc.

Seven Steps for Finding Flow:

  1. Set goals.  Setting goals recognizes the challenges involved in reaching the goal.  
  2. Understand the challenges involved.  Understanding the challenges suggests the skill set required to reach your goal.
  3. Develop your skill set.  Part of developing your skill set is monitoring feedback.
  4. Monitor feedback and adjust your efforts and goals as indicated.  As your skill set increases, you should increase the challenge at hand to remain in a state of flow.  Accordingly, your overall goal is fluid and can be redefined over time.
  5. Become immersed in the activity–focus and concentrate, ignoring distractions.  Focus is a skill set in itself and you may have to work on this.  It’s important to stay consciously focused in the moment, on the task at hand, to enjoy a state of flow.
  6. Engage in your flow activity on a regular basis.  This is necessary to build your skill set and attain meaningful progress toward your goal.  Your sense of accomplishment as you progress toward your goal is an important component of flow.
  7. As you progress toward your goal, think about the meaning and usefulness of the flow activity.  How does the flow activity harmonize with other goals or values in your life?  An important aspect of flow is that the process is just as important, or even more important, than the final product, in terms of happiness.  Nonetheless, it’s important that there’s meaning in what you’re doing.  For example, if your goal is to become a scratch golfer, you may harmonize this goal with your value of self discipline and hard work.  Or, if your goal is to learn to knit, this may harmonize with your goal of giving handmade gifts to others.

Flow activities may include music, a hobby, movement (sport or fitness), writing, study, art, what you do for work, etc.  For more hands-on suggestions, check out Dr. C’s second book, Finding Flow:  The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.

By identifying your “flow activities” and cultivating a “flow state of mind,” you’re not only building happiness but emotional resilience.  When times are good, flow enhances your sense of satisfaction and well being.  When times are tough, flow activities provide a sense of purpose and productivity, even though you’re struggling emotionally.  So get started today!

What goals and skill sets do you want to cultivate?