The power of flow for a happier and more successful life.
As a medical doctor, I often meet people who are overwhelmed with negative stress and anxiety in everyday life, drifting along without purpose. On the other hand I also frequently meet people who are living life engaged and full of vitality. The main difference – to sum it up in one word – FLOW. Because while real life has setbacks and challenges for each and everyone of us, there’s no doubt that one of the keys to a life of fulfilment and meaning is to have a sense of passion and purpose, to be able to spend time doing those things you love to do. In other words learning to find your flow!
The concept of an individual’s ‘flow’ has been comprehensively explored by the brilliant Russian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. His research originally investigated the habits of artists, whose intense focus and steely concentration when engaged in their process, had inspired his curiosity. He described witnessing their joy in creating for its own sake, and how they found personal fulfilment in the moment, without being preoccupied with the final product or indeed how it would be received.
The psychologist then expanded his research to interview thousands of people from many different backgrounds, discovering that creating flow experiences in your life can be a gateway to happiness; a profound tool in the creation of a productive and rewarding life. He found that flow is a universal psychological experience characterised by being engaged, happy, and energised.
It involves a high level of productivity coupled with an appreciation for the fruits of one’s efforts.
You must feel as though you are always pushing yourself but maintain the confidence that you have the ability to succeed. It is this combination that can so engage and absorb you that simply performing your activities can inspire a state of effortless concentration coupled with a feeling of enjoyment. It is this state that so many people describe as ‘being in the zone’, the effortless performance of the activity itself being its own reward.
We are wired to experience pleasure when we perform at, or close to, the best of our abilities – peak experience through peak performance. Through giving ourselves the opportunity to perform at our best, we can engender profound changes in our overall wellbeing.
Through entering these states of flow, we become more confident and self-assured, we view ourselves with greater admiration, and we are inclined to view life’s obstacles as far less challenging.
While twenty percent of people regularly enter flow states, unfortunately, fifteen percent never do. This is a great shame as experiencing a state of flow is the clearest view we can get of our own potential. When we find flow in our lives, we don’t only become more productive, but within this productivity we also become more playful, creative, and authentic. Just as the spirit of gratitude is learning to want what you have, the essence of flow is being in the moment; where action and awareness are merged.
The Experience of Flow
Imagine having the boundaries of your focus and abilities pushed, but not broken. Your engagement level is maxed out but you are not fazed by insecurities. You have mind-mapped your tasks and you proceed through them without doubt or hesitation. It is an experience often experienced by those who play sports. Tennis, a game I play for example, is a sport in which a state of flow is regularly experienced. There is a clear set of rules that require appropriate responses. The ball must be returned to your opponent’s court, giving immediate feedback on the success of your actions. However, when each point ends, no-one dwells on the result of the previous point, they merely re-engage with their focus and return to their flow.
It is not just athletes who experience flow however, many of us do from time to time in situations such as driving the car, cooking, studying, gardening, creative pursuits, or satisfying work.
Perhaps we even feel it when we are engaged in a conversation with friends. It is important to recognise these moments so that we can better channel them into other areas of our lives.
For myself, it is in speaking and delivering workshops to individuals and groups about new understandings of health and wellbeing wisdom that I often find myself in the zone! I have met many artists over the years who look younger than their years and I believe from engaging with them that their work allows them to be in a flow state for prolonged periods of time. As the saying goes, do what you love and love what you do!
The Benefits of Flow
When we are enjoying the experience of flow, our fear of failure is often replaced with an underlying feeling of enjoyment. Such is the depth of engagement that we often forget about our insecurities throughout the process. It doesn’t stop here however, because as we emerge from our state of flow our sense of self is fortified making us more robust than we were before. It is this ability of flow to centre us in the present, detaching us for the stresses of the past or future that truly gives it its potential as a silver bullet for expanding our happiness and optimising our experience of life itself.
If we imagine our life as a river, we can say that one bank represents boredom or a tendency to inactivity, producing apathy, and the other side representing an overflow of responsibilities, producing anxiety.
We often live our lives clinging to one bank or the other, unhappy but feeling fearful of releasing into the unknown.
When we have the courage to let go of the bank and ‘go with the flow’, we can find ourselves with a wonderful sense of liberation and the internal question – ‘what was I afraid of?’ This metaphor is illustrative because it shows us that our best approach to having flow in our daily life is by finding the optimal balance between our perceived abilities and the perceived challenge of the tasks at hand – where there is neither boredom (too much ability for the challenge) nor anxiety (too much challenge for our ability).
By doing this we can generate flow experiences which strengthen our psychological fitness and improve the quality of our relationships. They help your personal growth and self-development, make you more receptive to new experiences, more committed to learning new things.
After a flow experience, the concept of the self is generally strengthened because you know that you have overcome challenges with confidence and grace.
In general terms flow begets flow. We can create more of these experiences in our lives by being aware when we are in them and being open to replicating the experience in other areas of our lives. We can try to focus on our tasks as we perform them without allowing ourselves to be distracted by external thoughts, in this way we can often find we can create a state of flow within this performance, regardless of the nature of the task.
Journaling can be a useful tool to encourage flow in our lives, by noting when we have flow experiences and the circumstances that inspire them, we can learn to know ourselves, and our flow, that little bit better.
As we learn to live in the moment more, we can find flow in the small tasks.
This in turn allows us to gain more agency over our attention and our intention. These experiences will help us develop greater clarity as to what our lives are about, and redouble our efforts on focussing on what is important to us. Never allow life to cease challenging you, we can always find a way to do things better, to enrich our lives, or those around us. By doing this we can ensure that we are always sufficiently engaged to have flow in our lives. Flow through all aspects of your life, from taking care of your loved ones, to going to the beach, to reading a book; all activities can be done with a high level of engagement, and they can all benefit from this approach.
Start simple! Have faith in yourself that you know what you are doing. Choose one activity today and fully engage yourself in it. Whether it is making lunch for your kids, or performing a task at work, or arranging to meet with friends; be present, be engaged, and go with the flow!
Gradually expand this approach throughout your life and see what a difference it can make!