Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Director of Global Spa Operations and Development at Starwood Hotels where he is applying positive psychology to the customer experience in spas and hospitality. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. Like The Psychology of Well-being on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.
When the weather permits, my favorite weekend pastime is playing beach volleyball. In beach volleyball it is only you and your partner (two-on-two) with a lot of ground to cover, and it is challenging. But there is something about the challenge of it that makes it more fun. It puts me in flow.
Flow is a level of deep engagement characterized by complete immersion in an activity that brings a profound sense of enjoyment and well-being. People experience flow activities through arts, sports, work, relationships, and really any activities where they are able to use their strengths to meet enjoyable challenges.
Achieving flow states is all about finding the right balance between one’s skills and the level of challenge in the environment. When skills are low and the challenge is high, people experience anxiety. If skills are too high or the challenge is too low, people experience boredom or apathy. Flow can be found in the sweet spot where we rise to meet the challenges before us.
Flow activities are often characterized as solo experiences, like artists or novelists losing track of time while working on their crafts. But flow experiences can also be highly social, like an engaging conversation or a team sport.
Studying Flow, Alone versus Together
This brings up interesting questions for those seeking the best pathways to well-being.
Psychologist Charles Walker from St. Bonaventure University set out to answer these questions. Previous research already found that college professors find engaging classroom discussions to be the most enjoyable flow activities in their work. I’m sure other team sport athletes can relate when I say some of the most enjoyable moments in beach volleyball come when you feel like you are really in tune with the other side, anticipating every move.
Is it better to pursue an individual flow activity, such as taking on a new skill or hobby?
Or is it better to find flow interacting with others?
Walker’s research surveyed college students and identified different kinds of flow:
- Solitary flow (e.g. running alone) activities done by an individual alone
- Co-active flow (e.g. running together) or individual activities done in the company of others
- Interactive flow (e.g. playing basketball) where interaction is inherent to the activity
The more social the activity, the higher ratings of joy given to it by the participants. Co-active flow activities were rated higher if they allowed for conversation, for example running, than if they did not, for example swimming. Participants gave fewer examples of solitary flow activities than more social types of flow.
Walker then used a simple game of paddle ball to show that social flow would still be rated more enjoyable if the activity’s skill and challenge levels were held constant. I’m not a big fan of this part of the study as it could mean simply that the activity they chose just happens to be more conducive to social flow. I imagine that some types of activities lend themselves to being more solitary.
In a third study, Walker tested whether different levels of interdependence would affect flow enjoyment in a social activity. The low interdependence group passed a ball back and forth over a net. Another group played in teams of two like beach volleyball. They had to pass the ball to each other once before passing it over the net.
From my volleyball experience, it was no surprise to me that the two-on-two game was rated more enjoyable.
Why is this so?
I think this is far more complex than the research implies, and Walker does acknowledge that complexity of the different social contexts for flow. Different group activities, for example, may have different levels of interdependence which could correspond with the quality of social engagement that they engender.
Walker has a plausible theory for why social flow might be more enjoyable: it might be that social activities tend to be more challenging. Together, we can solve problems that we would not be able to handle individually.
Walker also describes the concept of vicarious flow driven by the mirror neural system. When we see another person experiencing flow, we are more likely to experience it ourselves. Shared emotions are amplified due to the reverberations of social contagion.
References and recommended reading:
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Walker, C. J. (2010). Experiencing flow: Is doing it together better than doing it alone? Journal of Positive Psychology, 5: 1-9.
Britton, K. H. (2008). Flowing Together. Positive Psychology News.
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2013). Five Reasons to Focus on Flow. Positive Psychology News.
Park, G. (2007). How to Bake a Flow Cake. Positive Psychology News.
Yeager, J. (2008). Smith Field of Dreams: The Flow State. Positive Psychology News.