When was the last time you’re so engaged in an activity that you simply lost track of the time? And you’re enjoying it so much that you wanted it to go on and on? What were you doing? Painting, or playing piano, or playing tennis, or talking to a group on your favorite subject?
According to Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in situations like these, we are in a kind of “flow”. Often, it is easier to observe the state of flow in others, for example, when you observe a master musician or an artist performing with complete immersion while being oblivious to the surroundings.
Studying “flow” across a wide range of fields and people, Mihaly found that in a state of flow the person is uplifted to higher levels of consciousness. The rewards are intrinsic, and as he explained, “life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future.”
When does “flow” occur?
“Flow” occurs when our abilities or skills perfectly match the challenge at hand, and there is an immediate feedback on your performance. But if the challenge is far higher than your skills, you may experience anxiety or if the challenge is too low compared to your skills, you may encounter boredom.
For example, while playing tennis with a friend who just about challenges your current level of skills, you are likely to enjoy the game and lose track of the time—fall in a state of flow. But if your friend is a much better player than you, the game may lead to anxiety or if he/she were just a beginner who is no match for your level of skills, you might feel disinterested.
Why flow matters?
What’s special about flow situations? Research shows that experiencing flow leads to:
enjoyment in the activity itself
sense of happiness and well-being
greater psychological strength to face challenges
Clearly, increasing flow in our lives makes sense.
How to increase flow?
There are four ways we can increase flow in our lives:
1. Identify your strengths and choose work that lets you use them
The first step is to know what you are good at? Often, the answer is not easy, but if we are alert and reflect a bit, life provides enough cues. For instance, think of a time in the last month when you were doing something with such absorption that you lost track of the time? For me, when I paint or when I am reading something that deeply interests me, I lose sense of the time.
In an ideal world, if we can find work that perfectly meshes with our abilities and strengths, we would be very happy. So, for a person who is good at building relationships, a job in guest services might just be the right choice to create condition for and enjoy flow.
2. Tweak your work to use your unique strengths
It may not be always possible to do work that perfectly matches your strengths. In that case, the next best option is to actively explore opportunities to apply your strengths and create conditions for flow in your existing work. Early in my career, while my job responsibilities revolved around operations, I volunteered to devote extra time towards training new management recruits, which gave me immense satisfaction and joy.
3. Use your time outside of work judiciously
If work does not provide you with a flow opportunity, try to fill your time outside of work with something you really enjoy. It could be gardening or learning a new musical instrument. The point is that we must actively engage in some pursuit that is likely to produce flow conditions.
In almost all such pursuits, over time, as we improve our skills, the thrill of taking on a higher level of challenge in itself is rewarding.
4. Learn something you love; master a craft
Often, as we grow up, we often give up and leave behind some of the things that we used to enjoy doing. So, let’s say, you loved writing poetry and you would still like to write some, given a chance. I suggest then give yourself a chance! And if your skills are at a low to moderate level, then start a journey of learning and mastering the craft.
By understanding the phenomenon of flow, we can learn to create more flow-like experiences in our work and life. By falling in flow, we can raise well-being and happiness.