What's So Great About Flow?


The power of flow when confronting pain or adversity

I had never “gotten” the game of golf or fathomed what is so exciting about it until a chronically ill colleague recently let me witness the game through his eyes. He spoke of golf as something he thinks about or talks to his buddies about every day of the year. Because he lives in chilly Canada, May is the first month he is able to play, and, as May approaches, the anticipation builds. However, the previous year, April brought beautiful weather, and he told me of spending five hours during the previous week playing with his friends. His health condition involves a great deal of stress and discomfort – even as we were meeting, he was working his Blackberry to schedule a series of doctor’s appointments and crank up his pain meds – but when he played, the game stimulated him to be completely focused. He was challenged and he was engaged and the five hours flew like five minutes. He was in genuine flow.

One of my favorite definitions of the emotion happy is that you are happy when you want to keep doing what you’re doing. Czech-born Mihail Csikszentmihalyi has spent his career studying the experience of flow – a state characterized by being so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you don’t realize that you’re hungry or stiff or in need of a bathroom break, and you are unselfconscious. A person in flow, in my mind, is truly happy, as the essence of this state is that she wants to continuing doing what she’s doing.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow is one of the keys to happiness, because if we “can experience flow working on the assembly line, chances are [we] will be happy, whereas if [we] don’t have flow while lounging at a luxury resort, [we] are not going to be happy.” The implication is that, even in times of hardship, worry, or despair, it’s possible to take a break from the negativity by absorbing yourself fully in what you’re doing – whether it’s playing a video game, attending a symphony, talking on the phone with your best friend, or filing your income taxes. Discover which experiences foster flow in your life – perhaps by keeping a journal of episodes during the week when you feel truly absorbed and engaged – and resolve to participate in more of them.


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