If ‘happiness’ were taking a bath, the tub would be leaking with time. With Flow & Engagement, you’re fully present with what you’re doing, focusing on what’s filling the bath. This bath fills quicker, more effectively, and usually more routinely than with simple ephemeral pleasures (our first Well-Being Element). It is essentially heightened presence and optimal experience during an activity.
Many kinds of activities are conducive to flow and/or engagement. This page will explore the how’s and why’s in detail.
“The river is everywhere.” – Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
What Is ‘Flow?’
Have you ever enjoyed doing the dishes? Can you recall a time playing a sport, a game, or working on a hobby in which you felt ‘in the zone?’ Maybe you can think of a time in the past week or month when you were absorbed in a task and you let yourself sink into the familiar, fluid motions, seamlessly moving from one thing to another. Perhaps—while doing dishes, vacuuming, gardening, or exercising—you lose yourself in it sometimes, losing the feeling that time is passing, noticing a sense of here-ness…a sort of hyper-presence. Maybe you even lose your sense of self in those moments.
These states of experience are different examples of Flow and/or Engagement. The difference will be clarified later, but for the purposes of general well-being, they together constitute our second Element.
By now, the experience of Flow is well-researched and has seen a peak in interest both inside and outside of academic psychology.The term ‘Flow’ was made famous 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
Csikszentmihalyi sought to capture the traits of optimal experience, and his research was both groundbreaking and relatable. He found that flow experiences are characterized by a few common features:
- Time Dilation – The world can feel like it’s in slow motion—as if you’re Neo in the Matrix. And yet, time might fly by during a flow activity. Hours may feel like minutes upon reflection.
- Lack of Self-Consciousness – You’re so absorbed that there’s little room for self-doubt.
- Presence – You are attentively ‘in the moment.’ (We have a whole section devoted to Presence.)
- Challenge – The difficulty of what you’re doing is well-balanced with your skills, giving you ample capacity to act. (Once again, we have a section on that. Go check out Challenge.)
In fact, the psychological features of the flow state can be rich and diverse. Here are a few more traits found in the flow state, with examples.
|Desire / Appreciation||The activity is something that you WANT to do, and you usually look forward (and backward) to the experience positively.||I find that when I play pinball I get right in the zone. This has me looking forward to the arcade every time. And I have some really fond memories there.|
|Concentration / Focus||Flow experiences are usually singular. You are focused solely on the flow activity, and little else.||Badminton focuses me. When I’m on the court—especially when the volley starts—it’s like nothing else in the world exists.|
|Enjoyment regardless of end (Autotelic)||When an activity sought for enjoyment has enjoyment in itself. The joy of the process.||Sure, we say “It’s about the music,” but that doesn’t just mean it’s about what’s produced, man. It’s about the moment. ‘The music’ is the experience of playing music. We get more from band practice than just what comes out of band practice.|
|Sense of Control||The process is not only happening to you but by you.||Embroidery is about those moments for me when the needle and thread feel like extensions of my own body. In those moments, even difficult patterns and knots feel like they’ve been waiting to come out of me.|
|Loss of Self-Consciousness||Anxiety and self-doubt, even low levels that are often imposing, are no longer present.||When I’m on stage doing improv, it usually begins with some amount of nervousness. Like I’m watching the audience watching me. Then, when it really flows, it’s like I forget that it’s even ‘me’ on stage.|
|Unambiguous Feedback and Clear Goals||You know what metrics define ‘success,’ from moment to moment. The goals and micro-goals are clear and accessible.||This video game has such a good flow. I can tell the game designers thought very hard about how to teach me at the same time as challenging me, suspending me in a state of complete focus.|
Where Do You Find Flow?
Maybe you’ve already thought of some activities in which you experience flow. Here are some examples:
Body Movement and Sports
- Rock Climbing
- Doing Chores
Games, Logic, and Social
- Playing Video Games
- Playing Music
Note that these are not ‘flow activities’ in and of themselves, but they may be activities that are conducive to the flow state for many people.
Assess Flow In Your Life
You can measure this element of well-being in your own life using the Assessment Center. Go check it out!
Flow vs. Engagement
Since Csikszentmihalyi’s research, Flow has entered the spotlight of popular psychology. Many offer Flow as a key to peak performance, endowing one with abilities beyond their wildest dreams.
“Informed by the cutting edge in flow science and culture, we train individuals and organizations to reach and harness their full potential.” – from the Flow Genome Project
“As children we are taught not to play with fire, not how to play with fire.” – from The Rise of Superman
Still others herald Flow as the key to a happy life. After all, it is measurably optimal experience:
- “The Key to Happiness? Going with the Flow”
- “Flow the Secret to Happiness”
- “How to Achieve Happiness With Flow, According to Psychology”
- “‘Flow’ Experiences: The Secret to Ultimate Happiness?”
There will be more about the Limitations of Flow down the page, but for now, an important distinction becomes pertinent:
Engagement is like Flow, but without the challenge.
Much of the research around engagement has been done regarding engagement at work. Researchers have defined it as:
“A persistent and pervasive affective-cognitive state not focused on any particular object, event, individual or behavior” ¹ ²
So, compared to Flow, Engagement is a more broad measure, and can include more cognitively easy activities, like watching a fire, listening to music, or driving. It’s fairly common, whereas Flow is unlikely to be an everyday occurrence for most people.
With Engagement time may feel suspended, and your attention is absorbed. But though it captures you, like a really good TV series, you’re not exactly asserting yourself or driving skillful progress.
Below are some possible examples of Engagement, and do note that challenge is relative. What may be Engaging for one person may, for someone else, test the limits of their skills and drive a deep state of Flow. So please read the below list with a silent “…sometimes” or “…for some.”
Examples of Engagement
- Video Games
- Watching Sports
- Watching a great movie or TV series
- Doing Dishes
- Pruning in the Garden
- Folding Clothes
Hobbies and Pastimes
- Jigsaw Puzzles
- Going for a Bike Ride
While there are some differences, the two concepts are closely related. Both flow and work engagement are “positive emotional states.” ³
According to the same study, “recent research suggests that vigor and dedication constitute the core of engagement, whereas absorption seems to be related to the concept of flow” as defined by Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre.⁴
“However, typically, flow is a more complex concept that includes many aspects and refers to rather particular, short-term ‘peak’ experiences instead of a more pervasive and persistent state of mind, as is the case with engagement” (Schaufeli et al., 2002, p. 75). Moreover, work engagement refers specifically to “identification with one’s work” (Schaufeli et al., 2009).
Although Flow and Engagement are both important, they also both come with risks. Later we’ll see how and why to strive for flow over engagement. And we’ll explore how even optimal states can hinder overall well-being.
But first, let’s take a closer look at the incredible power of Flow states and how they boost our experience and even our performance.
The Benefits of Flow
**Click to see the full infographic**
The simplest, most obvious benefit of Flow experiences is that they are enjoyable. They are happy experiences, which bring us positive affect and higher life satisfaction.⁵
Regardless of what flow activity you’re performing, you’re likely to report higher levels of self-esteem, concentration, cheerfulness, and creativity.⁶ Now, being in flow does not inherently mean that we’re doing something good for ourselves, (more on that later) but assuming you are finding flow during an activity that’s good for you, flow makes it even better.
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk
“No one ever has a bad time in a flow state” – Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance
Sometimes referred to as ‘peak experience’ or ‘momentary bliss,’ flow has a list of benefits, and more are being researched all the time:
- Flow focuses your attention on the positive and actionable – Negative mind wandering (familiar?) shuts down when you’re in flow.7
- Flow speeds up learning and skill development – Both during and in pursuit of flow, we train habits with more rapidity in flow.8
- Flow enhances performance – In almost any area of work and creativity, flow helps us perform better.9
- Flow can double productivity – Research has shown that the average worker is in flow about 5% of the workday. If that were increased to just 15%, productivity would double.9
- Flow teaches healthy Challenge – While in flow, failure is more readily a tool than an obstacle. If you haven’t already, check out our section on Challenge.
- Flow emulates Purpose – You’ve probably heard it said that we are ‘happy’ when we have purpose and care about something that is larger than ourselves. More on that in Element 4. Flow makes us literally feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves. Our sense of self diminishes with our sense of time, and for a moment, our ego is on standby. While in a flow state, people sometimes describe feeling ‘one with their environment’
- And more – In his book Flow, Csikzentmihalyi shows how flow can increase concentration and clarity, ease stress, and promote positive affect.
Csikszentmihalyi uses “enjoyment” to capture the positive feelings of flow, rather than “pleasure,” (Element 1) where enjoyment involves some novelty and requires energy and engagement. This echoes the important semantic difference between Happiness and Joy.
So, flow experiences are optimal and enjoyable.
“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 Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness
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
How to Find Your Flow
Seeing that Flow offers a state of ‘optimal experience,’ how can we bring it into our lives more regularly? Flow experiences are everywhere. And there are many ways to go about finding them.
In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky details a handful of ways to increase flow experiences, which are summarized here:
- Control Attention – In the words of Henry James, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” Attend to your experiences by exerting effort and creativity.
- Adopt New Values – Be open to new and different experiences and learn until the day you die.
- Learn what flows – Establish the times and activities in which you access flow and multiply them.
- Transform Routine Tasks – Things like doing the dishes, vacuuming, and other daily tasks are fertile ground for flow.
- Flow in Conversation – When conversing, focus wholly on the conversation. Put yourself in the others’ shoes and lose yourself in connection.
- Smart Leisure – Bring intention into your ‘pastimes.’ Choose activities that engage your concentration and exercise your skills.
- Smart Work – Find a career that feels like a ‘calling.’
- Strive for Superflow – Look for the experience which truly feels transcendent and savor them.
- Caveat – All flow activities, even the ones condoned by society, can be addictive. Balance your flow activities with your social needs and the needs of people close to you.
Those are all helpful tips. And to simplify it further, you can consider two major components to finding your flow:
- Choosing activities that fit well, and
- Accessing the flow state while doing them.
Exercise: Choosing Flow Activities
Think of your current favorite flow activity. When are you in the deepest, most enjoyable flow state? (If you can’t think of one right now, that’s ok. Skip this step.)
Now, list traits of that activity. List whatever variables you can think of, and as many as come to mind.
Using the list below, choose 5 to 8 of your favorite activity traits. Imagine yourself experiencing each trait, and choose the ones that naturally attract you.
- Body Movement
- Language and Words
Now let’s connect the dots. Do you see a pattern? If you lean towards a certain type of flow experience, then great! It’s worth leaning into more activities with those traits.And if your interests are diverse, that’s great too!
List 3 hobbies that meet the criteria you chose in steps 1 and 2. These could be hobbies you’ve wondered about or already engage with.
List 5 things you already do that have some of your chosen traits. These can absolutely be ‘mundane’ everyday experiences. For example, if I chose rhythm, motion, speed, and repetition, I might list doing the dishes, ping pong, vr (beat saber!), etc.
You may think of activities that have some of your traits but not all. Now, consider how you may bring in one of those missing elements to supplement the experience. For example, if you find flow in Drumming (rhythm, music, speed) and you are also enticed by social interaction, see if you can find a local drum circle to jam with.
If you want to use a printout for this exercise, you can get that here:
How to Access the Flow State
Whatever your chosen activity, foster a peaceful, focused time and place for doing it. Put away your phone, and devote your attention to the activity. Avoid multitasking, and make sure it feels good to concentrate.
Choose Optimal Times
Are you a morning person? A night owl? Bringing your fastest, most alive self will make dropping into flow much easier.
Make Sure You Authentically Care
If you don’t truly care about the activity at hand, it will be much harder to find your flow. If the activity doesn’t motivate you—or let you get happily lost in the details—finding flow will be more difficult.
Find the Difficulty Sweet Spot
People may say “Coding is hard,” or “Yoga is easy,” but the truth is that no matter the activity, you have a sweet spot. Find what tasks within your activity provide you with challenges that you can proficiently handle for where you’re at now.
Focus on the Journey, Not the DestinationWhatever the task, even if its outcome is what drew you there, consider what’s motivating your small actions. Let yourself get swept away in the processes of the activity.
Along with these points, making sure your activity has clear, executable goals that provide immediate feedback and a sense of control can be a bonus.
We talk more about Attention in our 3rd Well-Being Element, and it’s a common thread in Flow experiences too.
“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
Strive For Flow Over Engagement
Do you sense anything important here, in the difference between Flow and Engagement? Engagement activities are often more associated with comfort.
After a month goes by, we’re unlikely to remember these activities as more than just ‘something I did,’ even if they were positive and engaging.
In this way, Engagement can be like Ephemeral Pleasures in the way they can offer us numbing and distraction. Moderation and intention are important, and it pays off for us to consider questions like:
- How much of my day(s) am I filling with engagement?
- Is there other utility to this (like exercise, building friendships, etc), besides ‘just’ distraction?
- How can I present more challenge in order to use this time to enter the flow state?
The following TED talk from Adam Grant highlights this shift.
How to stop languishing and start finding flow – Adam Grant
This issue within Engagement, like with Element #1, can be a major aspect of Happiness as a Hindrance. Go check out that page if you haven’t already.
So, Flow is usually preferable to simple Engagement. But as we’ll see, Flow, too, can ensnare us with complacency, helping us pass the time but keeping us in our comfort zones.
Flow/Engagement Isn’t Everything
It’s true that flow is an optimal state of being. And, there’s more to life than being at a constant high. So the key to a ‘happy’ life isn’t simply to maximize one’s time and depth in flow.
It may be more helpful to think of Flow as a tool. It is one powerful means to the end of maximizing your well-being.
“I go into flow playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am merely fidgeting until I die.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish
**We HIGHLY recommend checking out Flourish. It’s Seligman’s (better) follow-up to Authentic Happiness and one of the best books in positive psychology.
Flow as a Hindrance
Even engagement and an optimal state like flow can actually be a hindrance to overall well-being.
It’s not hard to see why. Being engaged in anything can be a distraction from anything else. And if our flow/engagement activities cause us to avoid more meaningful consideration and pursuits, then it can be problematic.
“Avoiding thoughts and contemplation compromises our capacity to lead a full and fulfilling life.” – Tal Ben-Shahar, Happiness Studies
Consider the high we can get from substances. Imagine a drug that offers a state even more optimal than flow: complete ego death, presence, enhanced performance and learning, and even social lubrication. In pursuit of an optimal life, why not spend one’s life maximizing time spent on such a drug?
The ‘Flow Vortex’
Addiction is a complicated subject with many aspects to consider. Without going into detail, the point of comparison is evident: there are lifestyles and activities that offer a deceptive sense of living well, while leaving a real, sustainable life of well-being out of grasp. (Think Nozick’s Experience Machine) And experiences felt temporarily as peak/optimal are not necessarily the sole ingredients of a well-lived life.
^^The metaphor makes it seem more obvious than it actually is, in the moment-to-moment. 🙂
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. Flow experiences must be mediated by our values, meaning, and sense of purpose.
And, as with engagement above, there is the risk of complacency, happiness as a hindrance. There is only so much time in a day, so much time in a life.
Consider this comparison as an example:
The Flow Vortex:
Charlie likes to fly kites. So much, in fact, that it’s become his life.
He is out every chance he gets. When he’s flying, he feels focused and experiences deep flow.
He attends 3 kite flying clubs throughout the week and talks about kites with anyone who will listen. He surrounds himself with kite enthusiasts, and is always chasing after a chance to practice.
Plenty of Flow, less ‘Vortex’:
Charlie likes to fly kites. So much, in fact, that it’s become his life.
He is out every chance he gets. When he’s flying, he feels focused and experiences deep flow.
Now, he owns a kite shop. He attends 3 kite clubs per week, and his family likes to join him. He performs, creates kites, and discovers new things about life through his art.
It’s flow that got him here, but now flying kites is about much more than that. It is his service to the world, his expression, and a way for him to connect with his family and closest friends.
The major caveat that we’re honing in on here is this: flow without meaning is overrated.
Flow as a Vehicle for Meaning
Czikszentmihalyi concedes that stringing together periods of deep pleasure is not enough. In his chapter in the excellent book Flourishing—which collects theories from him, Seligman, and others—he offers a theory of flow that can result in emergent meaning, illustrating “how a sense of meaning emerges over time as people experience flow in activities that link them to larger pursuits and to other people.”
Even in Csikszentmihalyi’s original, landmark book, he calls attention to a higher-level of holistic well-being, branding it a “Unified Flow Experience” as when a person experiences a grand sense of flow across life, pertaining to meaning and purpose. Similar to during a single flow experience, a ‘Unified Flow Experience’ displays a sort of zone and attunement to challenge. He claims that this ultimate form of flow is attained when a person achieves “harmony” in life through overall meaning.
Hint: meaning in life is our 4th Element of Well-Being, and the most important one of all.
Recall how Ephemeral Pleasures (Element 1) can be used to ‘scaffold and sprinkle’ meaningful experiences. In much the same way, flow activities can make meaningful times more meaningful and enjoyable, and they can provide a context for meaningful experiences to occur.
Consider how you can seek flow in tandem with meaning. Here are a few examples of them fitting well together. Notice elements of the 4 Cornerstones of Meaning in the list:
- Dancing with another person.
- Choreographed kite flying with a team. (Yes, that exists)
- Partner juggling.
- Musical improvisation for an audience.
- Making friends at an improv meetup.
- Gardening, and thereby feeling more connected to the earth.
- Writing on a subject you care deeply about.
You may have also noticed the role of people in bringing meaning to our flow activities. As social creatures, relationships give us a sense of framing around meaningful experiences. So, when in doubt, share your flow with others, and find ways to incorporate the 4 cornerstones with them.
Try This: Find Those People
Do you already have a hobby or skill in which you find flow? If not, do the above exercise, and at least pick one that you suspect may interest you more after trying it.
Now let’s make it social! The chances are, there are communities of people into that same hobby. This may be where you find some new friends.
- Find and Join a few online groups for your hobby. Facebook and Meetup are useful resources for finding groups sharing a similar interest. Search, and if you live in a city you can even look for a local-based group. Google and Reddit can be useful search tools as well.
- Make it personal: reach out! You’d be surprised how welcoming people are to people who are interested in their hobbies. Sure, you can lurk on forums and watch other people interact, learning along the way, but make the social leap and ask direct questions to individuals in the group.“Hey, I saw your post in Quad-String Kite Flyers about thrifty kite finds. I’m looking to find an affordable first kite myself. I’m curious what you found out. My name is Joe by the way. Nice to meet you fellow kite flyer!”You have nothing to lose, and you may be shocked by the kindness of strangers.
- Go to social events. If you don’t know anyone, that’s ok. Be outgoing, and show up to a convention, meetup, or gathering with your best foot forward. Show humility and genuine interest, and you’ll likely find new friends that want to share the wonders of the world of (Insert Hobby Here.)
You can find a helpful list of tools and methods for meeting people on this page: New Friends (And How to Meet Them)
Summary: Flow and Engagement
Let’s wrap up and review this second Element of Well-being. What did we learn?
- ‘Flow’ is an optimal psychological state of being, well-researched by psychologists around the world.
- It is like hyper-presence. When in a flow state, we experience high concentration, intrinsic enjoyment of the activity, a sense of timelessness, loss of self-consciousness, etc.
- Flow activities are everywhere, and everybody finds flow in different activities.
- Engagement is like flow, but with less aspects of challenge and growth.
- Flow can have huge benefits. In the moment, it is highly satisfying, but it also enhances performance, productivity, and learning.
- To find flow in your routine activities, look for the sweet spot of difficulty: not too easy, but not impossible for you. Eliminate distractions, and make space for flow in the activities you care about.
- To find new flow activities, consider factors that attract you, like rhythm, movement, etc, and apply the above tips.
- Flow and Engagement are not the be-all-end-all of well-being. They are optimal psychological states, but they can also be addicting, and over-absorb us in work and activities that we don’t actually find meaningful.
- Optimize Flow and Engagement for your overall well-being by harnessing it as a vehicle for Meaning and Purpose.
- Find flow activities that fit with your worldview and values.
- Flow and engage socially, in ways that create shared experience and bring meaning to your relationships.
- Schaufeli, W.B., Salanova, M., González-romá, V. et al. The Measurement of Engagement and Burnout: A Two Sample Confirmatory Factor Analytic Approach. Journal of Happiness Studies 3, 71–92 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1015630930326
- Schaufeli, W., & Salanova, M. (2007). Work engagement: An emerging psychological concept and its implications for organizations. In S. W. Gilliland, D. D. Steiner, & D. P. Skarlicki (Eds.), Research in social issues in management (Volume 5): Managing social and ethical issues in organizations (pp. 135-177). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers.
- Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(7), 893–917. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.595
- Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815–822. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2065
- Rogatko, T. P. (2009). The influence of flow on positive affect in college students. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 10(2), 133–148. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-007-9069-y
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.
- Nakamura J, Tse D, Shankland S. Flow: The Experience of Intrinsic Motivation (2019) The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation (2nd edn) DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190666453.013.10
- Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. Oxford handbook of positive psychology (p. 195–206). Oxford University Press.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning New York: Viking, 2003. Print.