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Dr Edward Hoffman

Living Positively

Finding flow in everyday life - Dr Edward Hoffman

Have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that you “lost yourself” happily—and time seemed to disappear completely? If so, you’re no stranger to the flow experience.

“It’s as if everything is happening in slow motion,” says American basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, “and you just really want to stay in the moment. You don’t want to step outside of yourself, because then you’re going to lose that rhythm.” In quite a different vocation more than a half-century ago, the acclaimed artist Paul Klee related that, “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void… My hand becomes the obedient instrument of a remote will.”

Though you may be neither a professional athlete nor painter, have you ever been so absorbed in an activity that you “lost yourself” happily—and time seemed to disappear completely? If so, you’re no stranger to the flow experience, the focus of considerable research today for its personal as well as organizational benefits. Because such moments in everyday life are the antithesis of boredom, they’re a vital tool for enhancing your happiness.

It may seem surprising, but this important concept in positive psychology is unrelated to the once popular phrase 'Go with the flow.' Rather, it was developed by Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi after years of study, based originally on his own life experience. Born in Hungary, he spent part of his childhood in a prison camp during World War II, where he discovered that chess enabled him to transcend the suffering around him. As Dr Csikszentmihalyi later recalled to an interviewer, “It was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those [terrible] things didn’t matter. For hours, I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals.” In taking up painting as a teenager, he found that this activity too evoked a delightful sense of absorption—and, after gaining his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1965, he conducted pioneering studies of artists and other highly creative people. Eventually such research led to his concept of flow—which he defined “as a state in which we’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”  Ever since, Csikszentmihalyi has led scientific inquiry on this important aspect of positive living. 

The Elements of Flow

How do you know you’re having a flow experience?  Based largely on research with athletes concerning their experience of “being in the zone,” Drs Susan Jackson and Herbert Marsh in Australia formulated in 1996 the now classic paradigm. It identified these nine features:

1) Challenge-skill balance. The person perceives a balance between a situation’s challenge and one’s skills—with both operating at a high level. If the challenge is too difficult, then we become frustrated, anxious, or upset.  But if the challenge is too easy, our attention wavers—and ultimately we become bored.

2) Action-awareness merging. One’s involvement in the flow activity is so intense that it becomes spontaneous. Professional athletes often speak of this aspect as being “in the groove” and that “things just happen automatically.” In other words, the ego melts away.

3) Clear goals. The person has a strong sense of what he or she is going to do. The goals are clearly defined—and are either set in advance or developed out of involvement in the activity. Of course, competitive sports lend themselves very well to this feature of flow, for the goal is to win the game.        

4) Unambiguous feedback. The individual receives immediate and lucid feedback, which typically arises from the activity itself. Thus, one knows how well he or she is doing in the task-at-hand. As a rower recounted to the researchers, “{I was} receiving feedback from my movements that I was at the right pace.”   

5) Concentration on the task at hand. During flow, the person feels totally focused and distractions disappear. Indeed, the feature of total concentration is among the most frequently mentioned characteristics of flow experiences.

6) Sense of control.  The person experiences a sense of mastery and full competence—yet paradoxically, without an accompanying sense of having to push or force one’s ability. That is, the sense of control almost feels effortless. 

7) Loss of self-consciousness. During flow experiences, the person typically stops worrying about his or her performance compared to others. Rather, there’s a kind of self-merging with the activity and egoism fades away or disappears completely. 

8) Transformation of time. In an almost mystical way, time seems to alter perceptibly, either slowing down or speeding up dramatically. For example, baseball players often report that the pitchers’ ball seemed to “float” over to them, and cyclists frequently describe how the event appeared “over in a flash.”  

9) Autoletic experience. This technical term was originally coined by Czikszentmilhay and comes from the Greek words auto (self) and telos (goal). It simply means that the experience is satisfying for its own sake—rather than as a stepping-stone toward something else.

Of course, no single flow experience necessarily has all these features, but are some more crucial than others for generating flow? Though a total consensus hasn’t yet emerged, the general view is that the aspects involving challenge-skill balance, concentration on the task at hand, loss of self-consciousness, and autoletic experience are most important.    

For many people, the description of flow experiences is intriguing and seems familiar. But do these actually enhance our wellbeing? The answer is a definite yes. For example, a seminal study by Dr Judith LeFevre at the University of Chicago, found that the more time people spent in flow, the greater their tendency to have positive experiences during the day—comprising greater concentration, creativity, and good moods. In an influential study on flow experiences among older adults, Dr Seongyeul Han at the University of Seoul found that older Korean women who reported frequent flow experiences were significantly happier than those who had such experiences sporadically or not at all—and were less lonely, with a more affirmative, accepting attitude about their age.  

Creating Flow

Research shows that flow experiences bolster happiness and self-esteem at virtually all ages. This finding alone would be reason enough to cultivate such moments—and incorporate them into our everyday routine. After all, who doesn’t want to be happier and feel better about oneself? But perhaps just as vitally, flow experiences help us to keep boredom at bay—and boredom has been causally linked to many emotional and even physical problems.  It’s definitely false that flow experiences are impossible to predict and happen wholly by chance—as some commentators mistakenly suggest. Rather, many people know how to make these a familiar presence in their lives—and by following these steps, you can maximize the likelihood too.

Here are three pointers for action:

1) Write about a time when you experienced flow—preferably in the past few weeks. It might have involved a creative project at work, a home improvement, a nature hike, an aesthetic activity like painting or dancing, or participating in a recreational sport. Describe the circumstances as fully as you can recall: where and when it took place, who was with you, how long it lasted, and especially the goal involved.

2) As you think back to this experience, did it encompass the challenge versus skill-level criterion deemed basic to flow? That is, how emotionally, intellectually, or physically challenged were you? Did the activity required a maximum amount of your ability—whether mental or physical—a relatively high amount, or just moderate?

3) Now that you’ve identified the basic features of your flow experience, how can you increase their occurrence? Does flow seem more likely if you’re at work, doing a house project, involved in something aesthetic like art or music, exploring nature, or engaged in a sport? Also, how important are the time of day and place in increasing the likelihood of flow? Does it matter if you’re alone or if others are with you, or not particularly? Such self-reflection will help you to make flow a frequent, uplifting event in your life.  

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org