Type 2: Engagement and Flow

If happiness were taking a bath, the tub would be leaking with time. Flow/Engagement would be taking direct involvement with what is filling the bath. This bath fills quicker and more effectively than with simple ephemeral pleasures. It is essentially heightened presence and optimal experience during an activity. Not every kind of activity is conducive to flow, but many of them are. We can learn to be more present and engaged with countless activities.

Have you ever enjoyed doing the dishes?
Maybe you happily chose the task, and you let yourself sink into the familiar, fluid motions, seamlessly moving from one plate to another. Maybe you even lose yourself in it sometimes, losing the feeling that time is passing, noticing a sense of here-ness…a sort of hyper-presence or even a loss of your sense of self in those moments?
Doing dishes can be an exemplary instance of what positive psychologists call Flow.
In fact, this state of being is very well-researched. The term was made popular by the iconic psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “me high, cheek sent me high”). He defines flow as
“A state of intense absorption and involvement with the present moment. […] In flow we are in control of our psychic energy, and everything we do adds order to consciousness. […] When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy. But whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: ‘You are doing all right.’ The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment.” from his book Flow
Sound familiar?
Flow plays a crucial role in society and in many of our lives. It can especially be seen in sports, arts, and different kinds of work.
“You want to know how i did something like jump the Great Wall on a fractured ankle? I can’t really answer that. All i can tell you is what I already told you: When I’m pushing the edge, skating beyond my abilities, it’s always a meditation in the zone.” –Danny Way, pro skateboarder. from The Rise of Superman p. 8
Maybe you can think of activities in your own life that put you ‘in the zone’

Benefits of Flow

Being in flow does not inherently mean that we’re doing something good for ourselves. For example, you could be in flow while gambling away your last nickel.
But regardless of what activity you’re doing, you’re likely to report higher levels of self-esteem, concentration, cheerfulness, and creativity.

Assuming you are finding the flow state during an activity that is already good for you, it becomes that much better.
Csikszentmihalyi uses “enjoyment” to capture the positive feelings of flow, rather than “pleasure,” where enjoyment involves some novelty and requires energy and engagement. This echoes the important semantic difference between Happiness and Joy.

Flow means better performance. Simply put, it is the most optimal use of our attention in any given activity.

“The experience of flow leads us to be involved in life (rather than be alienated from it), to enjoy activities (rather than to find them dreary), to have a sense of control (rather than helplessness), and to feel a strong sense of self (rather than unworthiness). All these factors imbue life with meaning and lend it a richness and intensity. And happiness.” –from The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, p. 183

In his landmark book on positive psychology, Martin Seligman differentiates between these flow experiences, which he calls ‘gratifications’ vs. pleasures:

“It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities–not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.” – from Authentic Happiness p. 111

Accessing Flow

Flow is created under a few specific conditions:
  1. The task provides challenge and requires experience or skill
  2. There are clear, divisible goals
  3. We concentrate
  4. The activity gives immediate feedback
  5. There is a sense of control
So to find flow, we need to be challenged. We need to be engaged in activities that require our attention and give us clear, executable goals to tackle. This is sound advice for what tasks we choose to take our time, even outside of the context of Flow.
The secret to flow is attention.
“Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events–such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions–happen there, it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.” – from Flow p. 33

Control your attention. Be open to new experiences that challenge you. Work flow into routine tasks like house chores. See if you can flow in conversation with others. See where you can find flow at work.

It could also help tremendously to consider what you do for leisure. Do you usually watch TV? Scroll through social media? Mindless activity, more passive than engaged, will numb you and pass the time, but will provide no fulfillment or flow. See if you can transform some of these leisure activities. Try watching TV but making it into a game where you count how many times somebody says ____. If you find it difficult to reach a state of flow in a leisure activity, it may be wise to change it up.
Lastly, be aware that flow can be addictive. Even if you are engaged in a flow activity that is socially accepted as good, such as volunteering, there is potential for the flow state to pull you away from life’s other needs.

Unified Flow Experience

It is not enough to live life always in search of flow activities. Csikszentmihalyi argues that a happy, joyful, life is characterized by “complete absorption in what one does” and a different level of flow, pertaining to meaning and purpose. This over-arching, life-sized sense of flow he calls a “Unified Flow Experience”. It is when a person experiences, similar to during a single flow experience, a sort of ease and selflessness habitually and in all of their daily activities. He claims that this ultimate form of flow is attained when a person achieves “harmony” in life through overall meaning.

We will get to Meaning and Purpose in the 4th type of happiness. First though, take a look at the tools and resources we’ve compiled for Flow:

Then, let’s move on to the Third type of Happiness: