The top line: If we are deeply involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called “flow.” One may find still greater happiness experiencing “flow” in working towards long-term, meaningful goals.
Do you ever find yourself so completely immersed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time? All of a sudden you look up at the clock and realize that hours have passed and you missed dinner time? Think a minute about this. When does this loss of time and total engagement typically occur for you? This could apply to a martial artist completely absorbed in perfecting a flying kick, or a violinist fiercely concentrating on a complex symphony. One may find still greater happiness working towards long-term, meaningful goals. Viktor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, once said “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” (Frankl, 1992)
This loss of self-consciousness that happens when you are completely absorbed in an activity – intellectual, social, or physical – is described in contemporary psychology as a state of Flow. In order for a Flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You must feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a Flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion – a complete loss of self-consciousness –however, in retrospect, the Flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating!
A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that flow is highly correlated with happiness, both SWB (Subjective well-being) and PWB (Psychological well-being). Furthermore, it has been found that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem, and greater health.
One of the pioneers of the research on flow is Hungarian psychologist Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi, also one of the founders of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi began his research on flow by studying artists and creative types (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). He noted that the act of creating seemed at times more important than the finished work itself and he was fascinated by what he called the “Flow” state, in which the person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement. He set his life’s work to scientifically identify the different elements involved in achieving such a state.
One of the major methods he developed (along with colleague Robert Larson) to study flow is the experience sampling method (esm). People are given a beeper which beeps at random times during the day: participants are asked to answer a series of questions about what they are doing and how they are feeling (Larson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1983). Over a period of time, the researcher can observe certain patterns in behavior: for example, that people are generally happier after they have eaten a meal or practiced a hobby than at work or watching television. Much of this research has resulted in some pretty interesting conclusions about the relation between flow and happiness.
In one study 250 high-flow and low-flow teenagers were asked to report on their feelings and activities at regular intervals (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). The high-flow teenagers on average reported more time spent on “active leisure” activities such as hobbies, sports and homework. The high-flow teenagers also measured higher levels of self-esteem and engagement. Interestingly, however, the high-flow teenagers self-reported lower levels of fun than the low-flow teenagers. Apparently, high-flow teenagers see their low-flow peers as experiencing more fun engaging in low-flow activities, such as video games, TV or socializing. However, the high-flow kids end up having greater long term happiness as well as success in school, social relationships and careers. If Flow has such incredible benefits to our happiness, relationships and success, then why do we habitually choose low-flow activities? Why do we, in the moment, choose another episode of American Idol over a game of pickup basketball? One hypothesis is that the high-flow activities require more initial motivation because they do require skill and concentration. In other words, high-flow activities are work! But work that pays off. And unfortunately low-flow activities, such as watching TV, often contribute to low levels of depression and self-esteem.
Another study examined the relationship between environmental factors, flow, and happiness, again taking a sample from American teenagers (Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter, 2003). The esm data indicated that particular activities are associated with varying degrees of happiness. School activities rate below average scores in happiness, while social, active and passive leisure activities are above average. Particular social relationships also correlate to differing level of happiness. Being alone rates the lowest levels of happiness, while being with friend corresponds to the highest. Higher social class and age correlate with lower levels of happiness, while gender and race do not. Paradoxically, youth who spend more time in school and social activities are happier than those who spend less. Unexpectedly, students who spend more time pleasure reading report lower levels of happiness. Finally, feeling good about the self, excited, proud, sociable, active as well as being in the conditions for flow experience are the strongest predictors of trait happiness (long-term happiness).
Other Recent Research on Flow
While most of Csikszentmihalyi’s research has focused on American teenagers, his findings have been replicated in Italy (Csikszentmihalyi and Wong, 1989) and India (Sahoo,F. & R. Sahu, 2009). A recent study investigated the relationship between flow and happiness in an older population (Collins, A. & N. Sarkisian & W.Winner, 2009). Fifty-four older adults ranging in age from 70 to 86 years old (M = 77.54) reported daily levels of positive and negative affect, life satisfaction and daily activities for seven consecutive days. Higher quality of flow was 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. However, more frequent flow experiences throughout the week predicted lower average levels of positive affect and life satisfaction. The authors explain this unexpected finding by hypothesizing that many unhappy people (at least in older population) seek out flow-like experiences as a “fix” to boost their present affect level. Overall however, the results demonstrate that flow is linked to the affective experiences of older adults, and that an individual’s overall propensity to experience flow may be influential beyond the immediate effects of a given flow experience.
According to Martin Seligman’s model, about 40% of happiness is achieved by voluntary activities, the other 60% being determined by genetics and environmental conditions. If we divide this 40% into pleasure and Flow, we can conclude that 20% of happiness is determined by Flow. Interestingly, according to the model presented on this website, it is seen that Flow is a component that makes up approximately 20% of happiness, though this is “sliced” out of the happiness pie in a different way. On our model, the genetic influence is not denied and yet does not feature as a separable component of happiness at all. Rather we focus on ingredients within everyday life that compose happiness—caring, social relationships, strengths and virtues, exercise, Flow, meaning, and positive thinking. While the importance of these other ingredients tones down some of Csikszentmihalyi’s claims (happiness is not simply a matter of creating more Flow in life), it still points to the importance of his research for changing our lives for the better.
General Bibliography on Flow
Collins, A. & N. Sarkisian & W.Winner (2009) Flow and happiness in later life: an investigation into the role of daily and weekly flow experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies 10, 703-719.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Base/.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. & I. Csikszentmihalyi (1988) Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press
Csikszentmihalyi, M. & M Wong (1989), The situational and personal correlates of happiness: a cross-national comparison. In Subjective Well-Being: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. N.Schwarz, M.Argyle, F.Strack, New York: Peregon Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Basic Books, New York).
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist 54, 821-27.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. and J. Hunter (2003). Happiness in everyday life: the uses of experience sampling. Journal of Happiness Studies, 4, 2, pp.185-199
Frankl, Victor (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning. (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Hektner, J.M. (1996). Exploring optimal personality development: A longitudinal study of adolescents. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.
Massimini, F. and M. Carli (1988) The Systematic assessment of flow in daily experience. In Csikszentmihalyi (1988), pp. 266-87.
Moneta, G.B., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). “The effect of perceived challenges and skills on the quality of subjective experience.” Journal of Personality, 64, 275-310.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005) Paperback edition of 2002 book which is no longer in print). The concept of flow. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. (pp. 89-105). New York: Oxford University Press.
Larson, R. & M. Csikszentmihalyi (1978). Experiential correlates of time alone in adolescence. Journal of Personality, 46, 677-693.
Larson, R. & M. Csikszentmihalyi (1983). The experience sampling method. New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Science, 15, 41-56.
Sahoo,F. & R. Sahu (2009). The Role of Flow Experience in human happiness. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 35, 40-47.
Rathunde, K., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). “Undivided interest and the growth of talent: A longitudinal study of adolescents.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 6, 605-628.
Smith, L., and Elliot, C. (2001). Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. New York: Forum.