The psychology of happiness- flow

Hear from Kate, a community stoma care nurse.

What is “flow” and why is it important for happiness?

First, let me explain what “flow” is. “Flow” involves both an activity and a state of mind.

When you’re in a “flow state of mind”:

  • You lose track of time
  • The world around you quietens
  • You’re totally engrossed in what you’re doing
  • You’re not consciously thinking about yourself–in other words, you’re totally un-self-conscious
  • You’re working toward a goal

A Hungarian researcher ,Mihaly, has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfilment, and the notion of “flow”. Part of his research focus was to discover, when, during the day, people were at their happiest. Surprisingly, the times that people most often reported as being the most happy often occurred when they were at work, doing a task that totally absorbed their attention. Usually flow occurs when people engage in some task that activated and challenges their skills and strengths, which is why quite often it happens at work.

From studying the lives of people and flow experiences for over 30 years, he has observed that most people live at two extremes. Either they are stressed by work or obligations, or they are bored by spending their leisure time on passive activities such as watching TV. For most people he says “A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide flashes of intense living against this dull background”.

The experience need not be pleasurable in itself: it could be climbing a mountain, working out a new schedule, solving a difficult issue at work, listening to someone’s problem, fixing a motor bike, playing sport or chess or painting a house. What matters is that we have deep, effortless involvement in what we are doing, we don’t notice the time passing and we lose consciousness of ourselves. It often produces a feeling of exhilaration. Researchers have called such situations in our lives “gratifications” to distinguish them from pleasures. Gratifications usually involve the exercise of our most characteristic strengths. Gratifications produce a much more lasting effect on our mood and happiness levels than simple pleasures which can be more fleeting.

So, what makes you “Flow”? During what activities are you totally engrossed, totally unself-conscious where you notice you lose track of time? I suggest that you take some time to write down a list of 25 things that you feel are flow activities for you. When you have created this list look at it closely and ask yourself “how often do I actually do these flow activities?”, “can I create more time and opportunities for these flow activities?” “Is there anything I’m doing regularly that doesn’t make me “Flow” that I could reduce time spent doing?”

By identifying your “flow activities” and cultivating a “flow state of mind,” you’re not only building happiness but emotional resilience. When times are good, flow enhances your sense of satisfaction and well-being. When times are tough, flow activities provide a sense of purpose and productivity, even though you’re struggling emotionally. So, get started today and enjoy the flow.

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