How to Get In the “Flow” and Be Happier

Positive emotions have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being in numerous scientific studies.

To help you get into and maintain a healthy, positive emotional state, Harvard Health Publications has a new publication called “Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and personal strength,” which is based on the latest research.

One situation that may stand out for you when you were feeling positive emotions is during a moment of effortless action.

This sense of “flow” is what athletes refer to as being “in the zone.”

“The more flow experiences you have in life, the happier and more fulfilled you will be,” says Margaret Moore, founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corp. and co-author of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life with Harvard psychiatrist Paul Hammerness and writer John Hanc.

Here’s an excerpt from “Positive Psychology” on how you can get into the flow.

Flow: Becoming more engaged

Have you ever been so immersed in what you were doing that all distractions and background chatter just fell away?

Nothing existed except the music and your guitar, your skis and the slope, your car and the road.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., calls that state of intense absorption “flow.”

For decades, he explored people’s satisfaction in their everyday activities, finding that people report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing.

In studies by Csikszentmihalyi and others, flow experiences led to positive emotions in the short term, and over the long term, people who more frequently experienced flow were generally happier.

Researchers have also found that people vary in how much they value having flow experiences, and in how easy they find it to enter flow.

No matter what your natural tendency, recognizing how flow occurs (or doesn’t) in your life and creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness.

Defining flow

How do you know if you’re in flow?

According to the research, Csikszentmihalyi and others found that flow experiences have several common characteristics.

You lose awareness of time.

You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.

As filmmaker George Lucas puts it, talent is “a combination of something you love a great deal and something you can lose yourself in — something that you can start at 9 o’clock, look up from your work and it’s 10 o’clock at night.”

You aren’t thinking about yourself.

You aren’t focused on your comfort, and you aren’t wondering how you look or how your actions will be perceived by others.

Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.

You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts.

You aren’t thinking about such mundane matters as your shopping list or what to wear tomorrow.

You have clear goals at each moment but aren’t focused on the goal line.

Although you may be working toward an ultimate goal, such as earning a graduate degree, making a wedding cake, or winning a chess tournament, that goal is not your primary motivation.

Rather, you find the activity itself to be rewarding — mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your academic work, creating tiers of beautiful icing, or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation.

You are active.

Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.

You work effortlessly.

Flow activities require effort (usually more effort than involved in typical daily experience).

Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.

You would like to repeat the experience.

Flow is intrinsically rewarding, something you would like to replicate.

In a 2005 study, presented at the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium, researchers reported that 60% of people hiking the full length of the Appalachian Trail reported experiencing flow, usually on a daily basis, and more than 80% expressed a desire to hike the trail again.

In rating the things they enjoyed, the hikers said they enjoyed the experience and activity itself, as well as using their skills.

In contrast, external factors, such as competition with others and the prestige of completing the trail, were rated dead last in what made the experience enjoyable.

Enhancing your ability to experience flow in multiple domains can lead to greater happiness.

You can’t force flow, but you can invite it to occur more often, even in areas of life where it might seem unlikely.

Leave a Reply