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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, professional, 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 regularly also develop other positive traits, such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and performance.
One of the pioneers of the research on flow is Hungarian psychologist Mihaly 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.
Discovery of these factors is largely due to development of the experience sampling method (ESM). Developed by Csikszentmihalyi and colleague Robert Larson, ESM requires research subjects to be provided with a beeper that beeps at random times during the day. Then, 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 when 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 & 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 people habitually choose low-flow activities? Why do people, 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 preference for low-flow activities, such as watching TV, could contribute to depression and low 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 levels of happiness. Being alone rates the lowest levels of happiness, while being with friends corresponds to the highest. 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).
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. & Sahu, R., 2009). These later studies provided additional support for the universal benefits of experiencing flow. Much of the recent psychological research on flow has expanded beyond collegiate populations, now including the study of flow in the workplace and as an important component in the training regiments of elite athletes. Employees’ experience of flow on the job has often been described as spontaneous and difficult to predict, however, Ceja & Navarro discovered that a balance of enjoyment, interest, and absorption can increase flow, and subsequently employee flourishing, at work (2012). This work has been influential for companies and organizations who wish to increase employee productivity, creativity, and well-being.
Flow has also been studied in secondary education, and researchers discovered that teachers who experience more flow are more adept at applying personal and organizational resources. Personal resources can be thought of as a sense of competency in one’s work, and organizational resources include a supportive work environment and clear professional goals. Increasing educator’s goals and feelings of self- efficacy at work could lead to enriched learning environments for students, making flow an exciting subject of study for psychologists and educators alike