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)
According to The Pursuit of Happiness 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.
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. Low-flow activities, such as watching TV, could contribute to depression and low self-esteem.
Thus, when we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we can all experience a joyful state called “flow.” The experience of flow in both professional and leisure activities leads to increased positive affect, performance, and commitment to long-term, meaningful goals.
Take a moment to determine what is most important to you and what activities take you to a place of timelessness. Find your flow for a more abundant life!