Ever had the feeling of complete focus and contentment on a work task or hobby? That's called 'flow', and when you find it, cherish it. Because, as Arlo Laibowitz explains, finding that elusive state of flow can lead to great happiness. 

 

True happiness and satisfaction in our work, studies, or hobbies. These are things we all strive for, but only a few seem to be able to obtain such contentment. Did you know that there is a state that means to be fulfilled and engaged in these activities? That state is called flow, named by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Mee-high cheek-sent-mee-high]. So, what is 'flow' and how can we obtain it?

 

What is the state of flow?

Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, involvement and enjoyment: “A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”


The state of flow is characterised by total absorption in what one does, and the resulting loss in one's sense of space and time:

  • Action and awareness become merged.
  • We have no worry of failure, because we are in control.
     

Our sense of time becomes distorted, because the activity becomes rewarding in itself. 



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A state of flow leads to great happiness
 

The physiology of flow

Physiologically, consciousness, worry and self-reflection all reside in the front part of our brains. When we achieve a state of flow, this front area experiences decreased activity. This increases function in the other areas of our brains, enabling creativity and new ideas to emerge. Indeed, this state is not inhibited by the that more conscious part of our brains, therefore boosting productivity and creativity.


Curiously, achieving a state of flow affects other parts of our bodies, too. According to Jyoti Mishra, an attention researcher at San Francisco's University of California, blood flow moves to brain regions that process relevant, rather than random, sounds. This results in us being able to tune out sounds such as ticking clocks, passing cars, etc, when we are fully occupied in our task. 

 

“The state of flow is characterised by total absorption in what one does, and the resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.”


A state of flow also reduces the perception of pain, so that – according to Csikszentmihalyi – aches and exhaustion "have no chance to register in consciousness.” Furthermore, the concentration involved in flow deepens breathing, increasing oxygen levels and reducing lethargy.

 

Flow: how to achieve it 

There are people who have developed their flow in such a way that every obstacle becomes an enjoyable challenge. Csikszentmihalyi calls these people 'autotelic'. These are people that are never bored, rarely suffer anxiety, and are constantly involved with what is going on around them. So, how do we become more autotelic ourselves? There are some conditions that have to be met to achieve it:
 

  1. The activity has a clear set of goals and progress.
  2. The task must have clear and immediate feedback.
  3. We have to pay attention to what is happening in the moment without distractions.
  4. We need to learn to enjoy the immediate experience.
  5. We have to proportion our skills to the challenge.
     

How do we obtain a state of flow?

Flow is a balancing act between anxiety – when the task is too difficult – and boredom – when the task is not difficult enough. That's because when we are in flow, we subconsciously work towards becoming masters. So, to maintain flow, we must seek greater challenges.

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Go with the flow: challenging hobbies leads to happiness 

 

It's an innately positive experience. It produces intense feelings of enjoyment, with long-term benefits to positive effect and happiness. Csikszentmihályi also stated that happiness comes from personal development and growth. Flow states create this development and growth.


If you're having trouble finding your flow, take time to think about a time when you were doing something and felt all your worries slide away. It could be something as simple as a relaxing walk in nature, or perhaps a creative activity such as mandala colouring. Try to repeat this experience as often as you can, and challenge yourself to do more elaborate versions of it. 


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The more time we spend in flow-state activities, the more our intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning increase. So, challenge yourself with more complicated tasks, improve your skills, and repeat this process continuously, to help boost your happiness and life satisfaction. 
Main image: shutterstock/shurkin_son

 

Written by Arlo Laibowitz

arlo.jpgArlo is a filmmaker, artist, lecturer, and intermittent practitioner of metta meditation and morning yoga. When not dreaming about impossible projects and making them happen in the most impractical ways possible, he journals, listens to jazz, or cuddles with his better half.


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