Flow: A State of Full Engagement
By Elle Harris
The tangy scent of an orange blossom tree. The flowing three-beat gallop aligns in pattern with my rhythmic, even-paced heart-beat. Measured, heavy breathing of the horse. Hooves slice through air and tickle the velvet sand, flying up over evenly spaced red-flowered fences. Weight on the balls of my feet in the stirrups. My fingers tangled in black mane, following the give and take of the gallop. I dismount, look up, and thirty minutes have passed. Worries of the world sweep back in-school, work, relationship-and I am better able to handle them after that quick, empowering and self-integrative interlude. For many, flow occurs “from intense engagement with daily activities,” such as riding a horse, playing an instrument, or even savoring a scoop of ice cream (Collins, Sarkisian, & Winner, 2009, p. 704).
What is flow?
Flow is “a psychological state involving the positive experience of being fully engaged in the successful pursuit of an activity” (Marin & Bhattacharya, 2013, p. 1). In this state, “alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, and helplessness turns into a feeling of control” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 69). This forgetting of one’s self ironically leads to a stronger sense of self (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In other words, lack of self-consciousness and increased positive emotions in the flow state encourage comfort and personal fulfillment (Martin & Bhattacharya, 2013). One’s “ego can slip easily out of awareness” (Lewis, 1996, p. 337).
Then, a shaking off of preoccupation with self may promote integration of pieces of the self, an effortless harmonization of internal and external worlds.
When does flow occur?
Flow “typically occurs during activities that are challenging but matched in difficulty to the person’s skill level” (Ullén, et al., 2011, p. 167). Simply put, flow occurs in one’s comfort zone; the task at hand is easy enough that it does not cause angst but challenging enough so as to override boredom (C. Heffner, personal communication, November 8, 2019). A variety of sources suggest the following are essential to the flow state: balanced challenge and skill level, concentration, confidence and focus enough to move beyond self-protection mode, instant positive feedback, and enjoyment (Lewis, 1996; Marin & Bhattacharya, 2013). Flow emerges in a wide range of activities, “from playing golf to composing music to engaging in housework” (Collins, 2008, p. 705).
Csikszentmihaly, the father of flow, claims that flow can occur in family life, as members connect in collective goals, open flowing lines of communication, and appropriately balance individual differentiation with togetherness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). More attainable pursuits of flow might include reading, baking, yoga, or hiking.
Why is Flow Important?
Finally, why is flow valuable and worth pursuing? Of primary importance, flow is often associated with happiness (Collins, 2008). More specifically, Collins et al. (2008) found that flow is “positively associated with high arousal positive affect (i.e., feeling peppy, enthusiastic, happy), negatively associated with low arousal negative affect (i.e., feeling sad and disappointed), and positively associated with life satisfaction (p. 703). Csikszentmihaly (1990) suggests that increased confidence and personal fulfillment resulting from flow encourage happiness. In fact, while flow seems to encourage happiness, the reverse may
also be true; happiness may elicit more frequent flow (Collins, 2008). Also worth noting is the positive associations with flow and achievement. Flow is positively related to motivation, mental toughness, and creativity (Marin & Bhattacharya, 2013). Researchers Marin and Bhattacharya (2013) describe relationships between flow and success in sports, quality of group musical compositions, and a high need to engage in learning. Clearly, this cycle between flow and happiness and all their benefits is worth getting in on!
Collins, A. L., Sarkisian, N., & Winner, E. (2008). Flow and happiness in later life: An investigation into the role of daily and weekly flow experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(6), 703–719. doi: 10.1007/s10902-008-9116-3
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Marin, M. M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2013). Getting into the musical zone: Trait emotional intelligence and
amount of practice predict flow in pianists. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1–14. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00853
Ullén, F., Manzano, Ö. D., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., … Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(2), 167–172. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.003