Although the concept of flow is a relatively simple one, actually achieving this state may be more challenging than it seems. This article explains what flow is, what the differences between active engagement and passive pleasure are and what you can do to enhance your experience of flow in your daily life.
What is flow?
According to Wikipedia flow is, “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” If this definition is broken down, we can see that there are many components to achieving flow. To experience flow a person must feel energised since flow is an active, thought provoking process. Although to experience flow a person must be engaging in an activity which is inherently enjoyable, one must also invest considerable mental and/or physical energy into this activity. For instance, a person may feel flow when going on a deep sea dive. Although this activity is enjoyable, the person also must also put a lot of thought into making sure they have the equipment, knowing how deep they can go, staying with the group etc. If a person truly enjoys this activity, then all of these things will become second nature to the person. During flow, people tend to experience a great deal of focus and clarity. This leads to enhanced awareness and a heightened sense of being engaged in the present moment.
Moreover, one may feel a sense of timelessness when experiencing flow since the person is fully immersed in the present. A person going scuba diving or someone writing a book may feel as if they are part of something larger and more meaningful and experience a sense of harmony and inner peace while engaging in these activities.
Furthermore, in order to experience flow, one must feel challenged by the activity and simultaneously feel that they have the necessary skills and knowledge to overcome this challenge. If someone is given a task that they have no idea how to complete, they are likely to feel frustrated. Whereas, a person who is given a task that is too easy is likely to feel bored. Finding flow is synonymous to finding the perfect balance between challenging oneself whilst having the skills to overcome the obstacles.
Passive pleasure or active enjoyment?
Although watching TV, scrolling through social media or flipping the pages of a magazine may seem enjoyable these activities do not tend to produce a sense of flow. It is unlikely for someone to experience flow whilst engaging in a passive leisure activity. Whilst relaxation is important, endless leisure does not produce happiness. Flow requires a person to be actively engaged in an activity. The person must be experiencing challenges and thinking of solutions. Whilst watching TV, the mind is ultimately switched off.
When engaging in a flow inducing task, one also gets immediate feedback. For instance, a musician may have composed a beautiful melody and whilst playing it hears its beauty. There is no sense of achievement or reward when engaged in a passive leisure activity. Downtime, however, is necessary since it is difficult for someone to be mentally engaged in all activities all the time.
What can you do to experience flow?
Although relaxation is necessary in reducing stress in daily life, engaging in flow inducing activities is crucial to happiness. We live in a fast paced world where there is an unending stream of demands placed upon our time. Nevertheless, it is important to create a set of priorities and carve out time to devote to one’s hobbies and interests. Here are several ways to enhance your experience of flow:
- Set achievable goals and create a strategy to meet those goals
- Try and make certain activities more rewarding by dedicating your time and attention to them. For example, if there are household chores that you do not want to do, try to re-frame the way you think about them. Instead of seeing them as a burden, try and view them as a requirement to a healthy lifestyle. If one ascribes more value to these tasks they may become more rewarding once completed.
- Set up a creative space in your home and dedicate a certain amount of time to spend there. Whilst in this space, experiment with different hobbies or interests. Even if you are only in this creative space for 15 minutes, make those 15 minutes count by being fully focused and engaged for that duration.
- Decide what time of day suits you best to be fully engaged in these activities.
- Cut back on time spent watching TV or other passive activities.
Although it is difficult to engage in a task that requires mental energy and effort after a long day rather than engage in something that provides instant gratification (switching on the TV), it is important to realise that the former ultimately enhances one’s happiness whilst the latter does not. By engaging in an activity that one enjoys and is good at, one may feel a sense of confidence, achievement and higher self-esteem. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 3) says, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” On that note, it is time to focus not on what provides instant pleasure but focus on what provides flow for you. Challenge yourself to find your flow and ultimately your happiness.
Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Copyright 1997 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Reprinted by arrangement with BasicBooks, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Happy & Well. (August 18, 2014). Living in flow – the secret of happiness with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Happiness & Its Causes 2014. Retrieved October 23, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzPky5Xe1-s
TED. (October 24, 2008). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness. Retrieved October 23, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIeFJCqsPs
The Pursuit of Happiness. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2016, from http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi/
Image Credit: Fish and Ships, free diving and scuba. Retrieved October 23, 2016, from http://www.fishandshipsdivers.com/scuba-diving-courses/