Studying Flow, Alone versus Together

This brings up interesting questions for those seeking the best pathways to well-being. Is it better to pursue an individual flow activity, such as taking on a new skill or hobby? Or is it better to find flow interacting with others?

To read more go Dr. Charles Walker Positive Psychology
Charles Walker

Previous research already found that college professors find engaging classroom discussions to be the most enjoyable flow activities in their work. I’m sure other team sport athletes can relate when I say some of the most enjoyable moments in beach volleyball come when you feel like you are really in tune with the other side, anticipating every move. Walker’s research surveyed college students and identified different kinds of flow:

Solitary flow (e.g. running alone) activities done by an individual alone

Co-active flow (e.g. running together) or individual activities done in the company of others

Interactive flow (e.g. playing basketball) where interaction is inherent to the activity

The more social the activity, the higher ratings of joy given to it by the participants. Co-active flow activities were rated higher if they allowed for conversation, for example running, than if they did not, for example swimming. Participants gave fewer examples of solitary flow activities than more social types of flow.

Walker then used a simple game of paddle ball to show that social flow would still be rated more enjoyable if the activity’s skill and challenge levels were held constant. I’m not a big fan of this part of the study as it could mean simply that the activity they chose just happens to be more conducive to social flow. I imagine that some types of activities lend themselves to being more solitary.

In a third study, Walker tested whether different levels of interdependence would affect flow enjoyment in a social activity. The low interdependence group passed a ball back and forth over a net. Another group played in teams of two like beach volleyball. They had to pass the ball to each other once before passing it over the net. From my volleyball experience, it was no surprise to me that the two-on-two game was rated more enjoyable.

The research concludes that “performing [a flow activity] by oneself is joyful, but not as joyful as performing with another person.”

Why is this so?

I think this is far more complex than the research implies, and Walker does acknowledge that complexity of the different social contexts for flow. Different group activities, for example, may have different levels of interdependence which could correspond with the quality of social engagement that they engender.

Walker has a plausible theory for why social flow might be more enjoyable: it might be that social activities tend to be more challenging. Together, we can solve problems that we would not be able to handle individually.

Walker also describes the concept of vicarious flow driven by the mirror neural system. When we see another person experiencing flow, we are more likely to experience it ourselves. Shared emotions are amplified due to the reverberations of social contagion.

Volleyball anyone?