Updated: Jun 25
Experiencing 'flow' on a regular basis can contribute to better mental health.
As a flow researcher, blogger, author and a facilitator of flow workshops I am in no doubt that experiencing flow regularly is a real benefit to our mental health. Furthermore, as a skier and lover of physical activity in the mountains I can attest to the personal benefits of finding and experiencing this optimal mental state.
Trail running in the Haute Savoie, France
I was prompted to write this blog after reading an article in the Huffpost dated 17th November 2020 which is titled, "New Research Says Flow is Crucial During The COVID-19 Pandemic". However, I was also slightly reluctant to publish yet another article relating to the current pandemic as I know many people are tired of reading all these suggestions of how to manage 'lockdowns' and 'restrictions to our freedom'. But I firmly believe that learning more about flow is really beneficial for everyone and not just during the current challenging times but at any time.
But what exactly is flow?
Before looking at the 'research' findings relating to the Huffpost article mentioned above it is important to understand more about flow. I recently described it as follows;
"Flow is a mental state and is also known as ‘optimal experience’. It occurs when a person is fully immersed in an activity that is challenging. People who experience flow will have clear goals, gain immediate feedback and perceive the challenge as being very slightly greater than their available skills. The experience itself is rewarding and leads to feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction" (Chapter 8, Learn, Enjoy, Flow & Grow, Tate, 2020).
The father of flow research is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian-American psychologist who has been studying the construct since the early 1970s. He has researched the experience across many domains and areas of life including business, work, leisure, leadership, creativity etc. and written many great books about the topic. His official website is The Flow Channel which is a collaboration with Gary Gute and Deanne Gute.
How can flow benefit our mental health?
The Huffpost article is based on research carried out in China and recently published in the PLOS ONE Journal. The study involved just over 5000 people living in major Chinese cities who were affected by the coronavirus pandemic. They were asked to complete an online survey relating to their subjective experiences of flow, mindfulness and overall well-being.
Not surprisingly, longer periods of quarantine were generally linked with poorer well-being. However, an interesting finding was that those people who engaged in flow activities (more so than mindfulness) were better protected against the effects of this kind of confinement. They maintained better levels of well-being irrespective of the length of time spent in quarantine.
My own research with Alpine Ski Instructors (covered in chapter 10 of my book) highlights the important link between mindfulness and flow in that the type of 'attention' required in mindfulness practice can help to facilitate flow. So my suggestion would be that it is advantageous to practice mindfulness, not only because of its many benefits but because it can help increase the likelihood of experiencing flow which, in turn, can provide a buffer against stress. As I describe in my book, flow enhances learning. It provides enjoyment because of the intensity of the experience. It gives a sense of achievement due to the level challenge that the activity affords. This helps with personal growth and developing a stronger self-concept leading to overall higher levels of well-being. Flow is often said to be addictive but it is an addiction that is good for you!
What are 'flow activities'?
I mentioned already that flow has been researched across many different domains and can therefore be experienced in numerous activities. This is good news because many of the activities that I love to do and which lead to flow experiences for me personally e.g. skiing, mountain biking, hiking etc. are currently curtailed due to 'lockdown2' here in France. Indeed, the last time I skied was the 14th of March so I am longing to get back to it and know I will be little rusty when the opportunity comes along. But my point is that because I have a number of different activities that lead to flow I can still experience it even during lockdown. This it why it is vital to develop many different interests so that you find out which activities lead to flow state for you with the emphasis being on the plural. This brings me back to my last blog post on specialising or generalising giving further support for the idea that generalising is a good approach. What is important is that you find things that challenge you, that require you to develop your skills to a high-level, that use your strengths and that you want to put your time and energy into. Not all of these activities have to be outdoors in the mountains (as is my preference) but they can be anything that provides 'challenge' and that you can become immersed in. Perhaps you enjoy writing, reading, art or even a work related project?
For me writing is one of my 'non outdoor' flow activities that has really helped me during 'lockdowns' and it has been great for transforming time so that it passes by really quickly and large chunks of my day just disappear!!
In conclusion, I am delighted to see this recent research supporting what I already steadfastly believe; that flow can help improve our mental health and well-being. So my challenge to you is; to learn more about flow; learn how mindfulness can be used to facilitate flow; and find out what your 'flow activities' are. Apart from the enjoyment that such activities will give you there is also the opportunity to create a buffer against the inevitable stress that life throws at you and the chance to improve your mental health and well-being.
If you would like to take up my challenge then we have a few resources that can help.
My new book - Learn, Enjoy, Flow & Grow: Using the principles of positive psychology to help find passion and meaning in life is available NOW in both paperback and ebook (Kindle and ePub). For more detailed information about the book visit my author page which also includes direct links to various book stores where it is available.
Our online courses - Intro to flow, Attention as flow and Mental health are the perfect way to learn all about flow. In addition we run live interactive workshops online on Zoom session where you can ask questions and engage in great discussions with others. To find out more click here.