The Paradox of Flow and Happiness

By Christopher L. Heffner, PsyD, PhD

What is Happiness?

"...Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness.  While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal . . . is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.1).  Much of psychology has been based on this idea. For example, behaviorists argue that secondary reinforcers, like money, clothes, or respect come from outside of us and provide no real happiness except for their ability to bring about  primary reinforcers, those that are reinforcing on their own. Happiness is a primary reinforcer. It naturally reinforces itself.

In Positive Psychology, happiness is often used as an umbrella term for the experience of positive emotions within the PERMA Well-Being Model. PERMA represents the five pillars of well-being according to Seligman (2011) and stands for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. According to Seligman, we can achieve well-being within each of these pillars. For example, Seligman calls those maximizing positive emotions to be leading the pleasant life and those focused on engagement to be living the engaged life. It can easily be argued that we find greater and more complete well-being when we reach across the five pillars to focus on well-being in all aspects of our life, however this looks for each of us as individuals.

Happiness has been further broken down into two types: hedonic and eudaimonic (Schiffer & Roberts, 2018). Hedonic happiness refers to the pleasures and displeasures we experience in our lives with the simple argument that in order to experience well-being, the force of the pleasure experienced must outweigh the force of displeasure (Caunt, Franklin, Brodaty, & Brodaty, 2013). Ultimately, maximizing pleasure and minimizing displeasure increases well-being. Eudaimonic happiness refers to our ability to live our lives according to our virtues or values.

Happiness is in many ways under our control, although Seligman (2002) contends that there is a genetic predisposition and a multitude of life circumstances that also play a significant role in our happiness. Since we have no control over our genetics and in some cases over our life circumstances, we should be focusing our energy on what remains - those aspects of happiness in which we have some control.

What is Flow?

While the concept of happiness falls under the Well-Being pillar of Positive Emotions, the concept of Flow falls within the  pillar of Engagement (Seligman, 2012).

Flow refers to a state of mind and body synchronously focused on an activity that maximizes skill and challenge (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). You can see from the figure that when we engage in an activity that is challengeable, but doable, and maximize our skillset in meeting this challenge, we experience a state of flow. On the opposite extreme, the point at which we are not challenges and not utilizing our skills, the result is apathy, or a lack of interest or focus. If the challenge level is too high or beyond our skillset, we experience anxiety. If our skill level is higher than our challenge, we experience boredom according to Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory. Interestingly, those activities that bring about flow tend to be active while those that bring about apathy tend to be passive.

The Paradox of Happiness

When both happiness and flow provide their own reinforcement and relate so closely with each other, why would the two ever be in conflict. Schiffer and Roberts (2018) asked this question and examined flow activities, which require clear rules, challenge, a high investment of energy, and have been shown to promote long-term happiness better than low investment, passive activities.

The researchers completed two studies. In the first study, participants were asked to rate 36 activities that had been shown in previous research to require either high active involvement (exercising for example) or more passive involvement (reading social media for example).

After the results were narrowed through a factor analysis, the second study asked a new group of participants to rate the enjoyment, effort, daunting, and frequency of each activity. The researchers hypothesized that those activities that brought about the highest level of low would also bring about happiness and would therefore be more frequently engaged in that more passive activities.

Interestingly, they found that people recognized that flow activities brought about happiness in their lives, but that they participated in passive leisure considerably more frequently in a regular week. Why are we more passive even when this contradicts our natural tendency to seek out happiness, to engage in hedonic and eudaimonic pleasures?

Schiffer and Roberts (2018) explored the possible reasons for this finding. One reason was that participants failed to engage in a high flow activity if the energy required was too high, causing the activity to appear overly daunting. Related to this is the idea of transition costs, or the effort it takes to transition from a passive state to an active state. When the costs seem too high, the motivation to engage is reduced. Passive activities have much less transition costs and are also seen as healing and restorative.

Based on their findings, they recommend that flow activities be eased into more to reduce the amount of initial energy or transition costs required. It is easier to move to a 10 on the activity scale if you are already at an 8 than when you are at a 1 or 2. Find activities that have less transition costs or work to organize your week around activities so you have days of more flow and days of more rest.

More research is needed to better understand this paradox of happiness and how we can maximize happiness through our activities. As individuals we may also want to explore our own balance of higher and lower activities and work to find a schedule that fits us best.


Caunt, B. S., Franklin, J., Brodaty, N. E., & Brodaty, H. (2013). Exploring the causes of subjective well-being: A content analysis of people’s recipes for long-term happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 475–499. doi:10.1007/s10902-012- 9339-1

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. HarperCollins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Schiffer, L. P., & Roberts, T. (2018). The paradox of happiness: Why are we not doing what we know makes us happy? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(3), 252-259. doi:10.1080/17439760.2017.1279209

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Free Press.