What is Flow?

The concept of Flow was developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

It describes a state of mind where an individual engaged in a challenging task, feels that their performance ‘flows’, is effortless, that they are making progress and has the experience of being fully absorbed. People in the Flow state of mind report it being a very pleasant experience.

What causes Flow?

The eight key elements of Flow are:

  1. activity is suited to individual’s skill level,
  2. ability to focus,
  3. clear goal,
  4. immediate feedback on performance,
  5. lack of self-consciousness,
  6. control over activity,
  7. suspended sense of self,
  8. time-loss (forgetting to eat/use the bathroom)

Put in another way, what causes flow for you depends on your interests, skills and preferences. It is a subjective experience.

You don’t need to be undertaking a physical activity to bring on Flow. Flow can be experienced during intellectual, professional, or physical activities, such as running, cooking, snowboarding, giving a speech, creating artwork or playing chess.

In general Flow tends to be experienced most when we are involved in a project that monopolises our focus and also when we are around others. The mindset of Flow is a fine line: the task must be challenging enough to warrant attention, but the individual must have adequate skills to match the activity or they may feel stress, anxiety and be inclined to give up.

An example of when you might experience Flow

Imagine that you are running a hiking trial in a beautiful forest, on the side of a cliff.

Your full attention is on the positioning and movement of your body. You feel energized as you experience the brush of air against your face and the rocks against your feet. You can see the snow topped trees in your side vision and the view of the valley below.

There is no space in your mind for self-talk, conflict or worry, as distracting thoughts or emotion might lead to losing your footing. You feel completely absorbed in the scenery and your body is trained and ready for the exercise. You wish the feeling could last forever.

This is an example of when your total absorption in an activity might create what psychologists now know as Flow.

What can finding Flow do for you?

Individuals who regularly experience Flow tend to report higher levels of subjective happiness and more satisfying social relationships than individuals who do not often experience it (Bryce, & Haworth, 2002; Harlow and Cantor 1996).

The concept of engagement and Flow has also been studied in romantic relationships. The initial exhilaration in the early relationship years has been attributed to the novelty and stimulation of forming the relationship. Over time, this novelty and excitement inevitably decline and individuals often report less satisfaction in the relationship. Several research studies indicate that Flow activities can have a positive affect on long term relationships.

Most notably, a recent study assessed the impact of high attention vs low attention activities on married couples relationship satisfaction. The results suggested that more engaging activities lead to greater increases in relationship quality and higher frequencies of positive social behaviours for the married couples.

How to use Flow for your benefit

Finding ways to generate Flow more frequently may help you to experience a greater sense of wellbeing and satisfaction in your interpersonal relationships.

Here are a few tips:

Shape activities

Find ways to engage in more stimulating activities you and your partner enjoy and feel comfortable with. For example:

– go hiking,

– do an ‘escape room’,

– play chess,

– take a cooking class,

– go rock climbing.

Alter environments

Different environments can affect our attentional bias, as our brains are constantly scanning our environments, filtering information out and updating our neural networks. Our brain is less active when in a familiar environment, and while this can allow us to feel ‘safer’ it may subconsciously contribute to ‘being in a rut’ or feeling ‘bored’.

Changing locations whilst doing our usual activities is a low effort method to encourage more brain activity and stimulation, for example:

– take dinner outside to the garden,

– go for a drive and have a picnic on the weekend,

– walk a different way to work.

Change perspective

Bear in mind that in the long run, engaging in more ‘active’ relaxation activities are more likely to improve your overall sense of wellbeing over passive activities and doing so might also help you find Flow more often. It is important to have a mix of both, however play with the ratio of active to passive relaxation activities to assess what suits you. Rather than always watching sit-coms on TV or reading pulp-fiction, consider choosing something that might excite your brain a little more such as:

– read a challenging book,

– go for a walk,

– call or visit a friend,

– watch a thriller on TV that encourages your attention.

Practice and use Mindfulness

The ability to stay in the present moment significantly impacts our ability to engage in Flow. If we are continually thinking about the future or the past, it is difficult to remain focused on the task at hand.

Use of mindful deep breathing and other Mindfulness techniques throughout the day will give you the skills required to focus and find Flow when the other conditions are right.

Spend time with others

We are more likely to experience Flow when we are around others. And we are more likely to feel happier if we experience Flow.

Therefore, it makes great sense to spending time with our friends and family whenever possible. As well as helping find Flow, being more sociable might also provide the secondary benefit of more emotional stability which may improve our ability to empathise, connect and support our loved ones.

There are many ways to improve your sense of purpose. Flow is one of the states of mind that professional mental health practitioners are aware of and can help you achieve more often – as a tool to use on your path to a healthier and happier life.

If you would like to improve your relationships, sense of wellbeing or ability to comfortably sit with thoughts and emotions, try talking to a qualified psychologist about how they can help. If you don’t have a psychologist or feel like you need a change, have a chat with the experienced and caring team at Revive.

Some helpful links and resources on Flow: