Flow: The Key to Happiness
How and Why Students Should be Involved
Eric Zielinski, DC Student
Proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD – Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, the concept of flow has been widely referenced in the field of positive psychology where researchers measure things like states of happiness, values, strengths, virtues, and talents. Intrigued by people who perform very difficult and demanding tasks for no financial incentive or social status benefit, Csikszentmihalyi began to study this phenomenon that led him to a career’s worth of research. For no apparent reason other than the fact that they thoroughly enjoyed what they were doing, these people subjected themselves to strenuous physical, mental, emotional, and even financial stress to accomplish their goals. According to Csikszentmihalyi, what motivated people to do these activities, was “not anything that came from outside, but it came from the activity itself.”
Csikszentmihalyi coined the flow experience as a “synergy of different aspects of consciousness where you wish you could go forever because it feels like you are completely fulfilling something that you can do you well and see it happening and feel that nothing else matters.” Flow is a place where people have a very clear goal and is what athletes commonly refer to as “the zone.” Moment-by-moment, people who flow, know exactly what they have to do in an almost surreal, out-of-body experience where life-purpose and satisfaction are at the pinnacle. Outside of pitching a perfect game or bowling a 300, other tasks commonly experienced as flow are playing music, painting, writing, sewing, or any other sequence-oriented task where you can let your mind go and simply allow your innate intelligence to operate in full capacity. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.
It may be of interest for you to note that the ability to experience flow is oftentimes related to our ability to overcome adversity. According to Richard J. Davidson, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, one of the keys to happiness, and subsequently being able to experience flow, is being able to recover from adversity quickly. Contrary to popular belief, adversity is a very healthy part of happiness. To be happy, people must experience sadness. To experience a sense of achievement, people must experience challenges. Even tragedy has a role in helping people be happy.
The following six factors encompass an experience of flow:
1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. Merging of action and awareness
3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5. A distortion of temporal experience, a person’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination they constitute a so-called flow experience.