In Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines a flow state as:
“Concentration is so intense that no attention is left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.”
There is nothing quite like being in a flow state. Having had one of the most productive weeks of my life — writing 40 articles in the space of seven days— I can certainly attest to that. When in flow, the words seem to pour out of my fingers and onto the keyboard, time slips away effortlessly, and before I know it, I’ve finished another article.
Typically, you’d associate it with work. The more amount of time you can stay in a flow state, the more work you get done. It’s like a superpower, one which companies should harness to get the most out of their employees. To get into a state of flow, there are three main strategies you need to employ, according to the psychologist who created it, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
- Choose a difficult but not impossible task and stick to it. The key, Csikszentmihalyi says, is to find the middle ground. You want to test your abilities without overreaching.
- Have a clear objective. A Gallup study found that only 13% of employees worldwide feel engaged at work, as they don’t have a clear goal set out for them. When you’re playing sports or a video game, there is one clear objective — to win. Figure out yours for clarity and subsequent focus.
- Concentrate on a single task. Csikszentmihalyi says the brain can only take in “110 bits of information a second.” To put that into context, you take in about 60 when talking with someone. The brain isn’t wired to multitask. To focus, he says, you need to place yourself in a distraction-free zone and have control over what it is you’re doing at all times.
The primary benefit of a flow state is productivity, but it is so much more than that, too. I can personally attest to the drastic effect increased productivity has on my life. The more often I get into a flow state, the more seamless writing articles is to me. Even now, I am writing this in one, and it feels great.
What other health benefits are there? Let me explain.
You Feel More Enjoyment
One study found that people in a state of flow reported being more cheerful, strong, active, concentrated, creative, and satisfied. All of this leads to higher self-esteem, with people who regularly experience a flow state having higher levels of it overall.
It is quite alarming to see how many people overlook work’s impact on their mental health. As per the study I mentioned earlier, 85% of people don’t feel focused at work. That is hardly good for anyone. We reportedly spend one-third of our lives at work, according to Gettysburg University. How much better would that be if we strived to achieve flow? An office is filled with distractions. People are asking for help, no headphones allowed, and mind-numbing work. All of these aspects contribute to the office worker’s inability to focus.
Ultimately, the less enjoyment we get out of something, the less effort we are going to put in. I wouldn’t say a flow state makes everything easier, just better. More fulfilling, perhaps. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow gives us enjoyment, not pleasure. It’s a subtle but noticeable difference. We feel pleasure when we are content and comfortable. That isn’t a flow state. Flow is hard — it’s still work — but it requires your brain to be active.
Teenagers, in particular, will benefit from learning more about flow state. I couldn’t tell you how many times I became disinterested in homework and lessons, counting the minutes away. My brain wasn’t as active as it could have been, so when it was required to, it took a Herculian effort.
I, for one, would love to spend a third of my life feeling enjoyment, rather than one long sigh. I like writing, yes. But it’s still work. Work is hard, so it will rarely please me. Search for enjoyment, and you’re onto a winner.
You Are Happier
Being in a flow state isn’t emotional. I don’t recall feeling happy, sad or frustrated. It just happens. Still, adults have reported feeling happier when they get into a flow state more often. Csikszentmihalyi says that we control the happiness derived from flow more than the happiness we get from pleasure since it doesn’t necessarily depend on extraneous circumstances or other people.
You Focus On Performance More Often
The Harvard Business School said they had more breakthroughs when working in the conditions flow is typically associated with: clearly defined goals and flexibility in how to reach them. In a state of flow, our brain waves move from the beta waves, associated with concentration, to theta waves, which are linked to relaxation. If you meditated, they’d flare-up. The theta waves are the key you use to unlock the door to the creativity lying within you.
The science gets better and better. A flow state triggers the release of dopamine, which increases excitement and focuses our attention. It’s a win-win. Flow pushes people to have more productive habits, such as out of hours studying — particularly among teenagers. The benefits are endless. Not only does it dramatically boost your productivity (about five times as much according to some executives), it leads to better habits outside of work, leading to a more efficient way of living.
I firmly believe flow should be taught and used in an educational environment. Learn it’s importance from an early age, and you are more likely to take productive habits with you into later life. If I knew about it at school, my exams sure would’ve been a more pleasurable experience.
Steven Kotler author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, gave a talk explaining how flow helped him recover from Lymes disease. When put to effective use, the possibilities can be endless. Focus on your work, your health and anything in between. Focus on flow.
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