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An important concept in Positive Psycholgy is 'flow'. This is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a result of studies he undertook on what gives people enjoyment.

What he found is that people of all ages, nationalities and interests in life report their involvement in activities in a similar way. In a nutshell 'flow' happens when we become so absorbed in an activity that we lose ourselves and our sense of time is altered. When we are engrossed we often have so little sense of ourselves that we do not feel happy, in fact we feel nothing. (Or indeed we may even experience physical discomfort as may be case for a mountaineer or athelete.) But afterwards we have such a strong sense of gratification that we construe the activity as enjoyable and satisfying and so such experiences contribute substantially to our feelings of happiness and well-being.

Activities which can induce flow are varied and numerous. It could be reading a book, playing a sport or having an engrossing conversation with a friend. Commonly it is something that we find challenging. This is why many people experience flow easily in competitive sports where challenge and feedback are intrinsic to the activity. If the talents of the players are mismatched, one is a beginner chess player, for example, and the other is a Grand Master then neither is likely to experience flow. For one opponent there is no challenge and for the other it is too daunting and so not easy to lose oneself in the activity. 

Another aspect of flow is that it is intrinsically rewarding and so motivating. We may be involved in the activity because it is our work, and so we are being paid to do it, yet if we are in flow with the activity we get the feeling that we would be involved even if we weren't being paid. 

The eight ingredients of flow

  1. The experience occurs usually when we are involved in tasks that we have a good chance of completing.
  2. We are able to concentrate fully on the activity.
  3. The task has clear goals.
  4. The task is such that it gives us immediate feedback on how well we are doing.
  5. Our involvement is 'deep but effortless' and this 'removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life'.
  6. There is a sense of exercising control over our actions.
  7. Concern for the self disappears but paradoxically our 'sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over'.
  8. We lose our normal sense of time 'we can feel either that it has speeded up (and passed quickly) or slowed down.'

The importance of flow

Csikszentmihalyi believes that it is very easy for the human brain to be negative and chaotic and for us to turn this negativity on ourselves. Through the imposition of goals, the deliberate focusing of consciousness and the loss of a sense of self, flow allows us not only to gain respite from such 'psychic entropy' but also to establish order and grow and develop as individuals. So flow is important because it -

  • gives us the opportunity to 'achieve mastery over consciousness'
  • allows us to become much more complex, developed individuals
  • builds 'psychological capital'
  • allows us to have 'optimal experience'.

Flow and meaning 

In Authentic Happiness Seligman outlines three levels of happiness:

  1. the pleasant life which consists of pleasurable experiences and maximising positive emotion
  2. the engaged life
  3. the meaningful life.

Seligman's concept of the engaged life is basically Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow and optimal experience. Seligman thinks it a less important type of happiness than that gained from meaningful activities. And here Csikszentmihalyi agrees. He points out that flow is basically value-free. One could be in flow when committing a terrorist act, for example, or playing poker which does not necessarily contribute much to the social good. Csikszentmihalyi argues that for a life to be meaningful, it must involve the following:

  • Instead of an unrelated series of goals which produce flow, there is 'an all-encompassing set of challenges that gives purpose to everything a person does'.
  • There is intention and resolve to act on this purpose.
  • The person's whole life and being is congruent and in harmony with this purpose.

The problems with leisure

Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues conducted empirical research to find out how often people experienced flow and in what activities. What they discovered is that people are much more likely to report flow from work activities than in their leisure time. But this results in a paradoxical situation: 'On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.' 

For Csikszentmihalyi the problem with leisure is that many people spend their time in 'passive entertainment which leads nowhere.' Watching TV, for example, requires no skill and provides little challenge. This is why when watching TV most people's mood could be classified as 'apathy'. So in Csikszentmihalyi's view: 'Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons such as a wish to flaunt one's 'status' are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before.' 

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

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