Which pathways lead to well-being?
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p.3)
At the moment positive psychologists don’t yet agree on how many routes to well-being there are, or exactly what they are; what we do know is that there are many different ones, for example three in Authentic Happiness, five in the Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being; six in Carol Ryff’s Psychological Well-being (PWB).
It’s sometimes said that no individual pathway is better than any other; which one you take is very much a matter of personal choice.
Some of us prefer a life filled with positive emotion, taking great pleasure from eating at 5-star restaurants, flaunting a pair of Christian Louboutins, or holidaying in Mauritius, and would be miserable without a regular dose of fun and frivolity. Some are more attracted to a life steeped in meaning and purpose, caring nothing if life’s luxuries are absent. Still others seek accomplishment, such as reaching the pinnacle of a chosen profession, as the main pathway to well-being.
Flow versus Fun
In our Positive Psychology Masterclasses, we frequently discuss with participants the relative merits of flow (also known as engagement or absorption) and positive emotions as routes to happiness. Based on our individual experiences we all have different perspectives. Some put their money firmly on positive emotion being a superior source of happiness. The work of Barbara Fredrickson on the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions has opened our eyes to the possibility that positive emotions are more important than we have traditionally thought. They don’t just make us feel good, they do us good too. But the more I learn about it, the more I think that the importance of flow as a source of well-being is vastly understated.
For one thing, the enjoyment we derive from flow is an active and dynamic state. It’s about being able to control our inner experience, whereas the experience of positive emotion seems more passive, depending on events and experiences that are external to us. According to Csikszentmihalyi,
“…happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, how we interpret them…People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.” (p2)
Additionally, positive emotions are typically fleeting: they don’t hang around for long. This may explain why we need a balance of around 3:1 in order to experience a positive upward spiral. Being able to feel positive emotions for any length of time looks like quite hard work!
There are many good reasons why we should focus more on flow as a route to well-being. Five of the best ones are highlighted below.
1. Exercising Control
Self-Determination Theory suggests that one of the fundamental building blocks of well-being is autonomy, being in control of your own life and make your own decisions and choices about what to do or not to do. Control is an important part of the flow experience too, although it seems that, paradoxically, it isn’t the actuality of having control that matters, but the possibility of exercising control, and the lack of worry about losing control.
2. Experiencing Freedom from Negative Thoughts
In flow, being able to control our inner experience isn’t about reframing negative thoughts into positive ones or changing our subjective experience of an event to make it more tolerable or less worrisome. Flow seems more aligned with the concept of mindfulness because it requires you to be able to direct your attention at will to the task in hand.
By paying focused attention to the task, whether it’s washing up, sweeping away last night’s snow fall, or writing your dissertation, there isn’t room in your consciousness for other distractions, worries, or negative thoughts. It isn’t that you ignore the source of negativity as such, but that for as long as the flow experience lasts, which might be minutes or even hours, you’re oblivious to negative thoughts and therefore free from them.3. Developing Mastery
We all want to feel that we’re good at doing what we do. Fulfilling our basic need for mastery or competence is another of the basic building blocks of well-being in Self-Determination Theory. According to K. Anders Ericsson, mastery of your subject or discipline requires around 10,000 hours (or roughly 10 years) of deliberate, effortful practice. As long as the challenge of the task slightly outweighs the level of skill, experiencing flow can lead to mastery. Attention and intrinsic motivation seem to go hand in hand: ensuring that the years of practice are as enjoyable as possible, even if they are hard work, makes perfect sense.
4. Facilitating Personal Growth and Connection with Others
Flow also leads to personal growth because it facilitates two contrasting psychological processes that enable the self to become more complex. On the one hand, it facilitates differentiation or separation from other people, that is, the feeling of being personally unique, capable, and skilled. On the other hand, flow facilitates integration, both of the self (harmony because your thoughts, feelings, intentions, and senses are aligned) and with other people (in terms of feeling more closely connected with them). It would seem that flow experiences not only enable us to learn and grow as individuals, but also help us to achieve the third psychological need of Self-Determination Theory, relatedness.
5. Building Confidence
Another reason why flow should be at the top of the list of happiness enhancers is that flow experiences help build confidence. This isn’t just the confidence that naturally occurs as a result of becoming more skilled and competent at a task. Flow requires us to focus our attention so completely on the task in hand that there’s no room left over to think about our own selves. We don’t worry about what we look like or what others are thinking of us. There is what Csikszentmihalyi calls “a loss of consciousness of the self,” where we are no longer preoccupied by who we are. If you spend a moment recalling any of your recent flow experiences, you’ll know what I mean.Tips for Finding More Flow in Your Life
- Control your attention. Minimize distractions and focus on your task, whatever it might be. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the task.
- Manage the balance between skill and challenge.
- If the task is too easy, find ways to make it more challenging, for example by doing it more quickly (or more slowly) than normal.
- To transform otherwise dull low skill/low challenge activities like sitting in a waiting room, create ‘micro-flow’ experiences with specific rules and goals. Examples include solving puzzles in your head or composing haiku.
- If the task is too challenging, find ways to up your skill level. You could look for additional training, coaching or mentoring. Or you could break the task down into smaller steps which are more achievable. Or find ways to apply your top strengths to help you achieve it.
- To achieve flow in conversation, focus intently on the other person and actively listen to what they are saying. Ask questions and allow plenty of time.
- Talk to other people about how they find flow.
- Finally, seek feedback on your performance on the task and act on it.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial. Published in the UK in 1992 as Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, N. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6): 1069–1081. Abstract.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
1. Flow courtesy of Eva Lottchen
2. Focussed courtesy of Vince Alongi
3. The Soloist by DG Jones
Bridget, another excellent article, concise, thoughtful and practical. Best wishes, Will
Bridget – are we really in control when is a state of flow or are we just going with the flow. Sorry bad pun.
As an aside the emotion I experience when in flow is calmness – its subtle but its there. I don’t believe any state is emotion free.
Thanks for your comments. You raise an interesting question about control. How I understand it is that when in flow, we’re constantly fine tuning our skills in the moment in order to complete the task in hand – take rock-climbing for example – at any moment, the challenge of the rockface might outdo us so we need to be 100% focussed on getting the right rope tension, finding the right place to fix a piton, whether we could reach that overhang with our left hand or whether we should try a different move, and so on – so we may have a sense of being in control. But rock-climbing is an inherently risky sport and we may fall – in which case it’s not a situation we can be in control of 100% of the time. That’s part of the attraction for many climbers, pitting your wits against nature. So I think in flow there are micro-moments when we are in control and then we’re not in control, having to adjust our skills over and over in order to regain it.
Flow is often described as a non-emotional state, one where we don’t feel good in the moment, only afterwards. I’m interested in your use of the word calmness though. Csikszentmihalyi does say that flow activities help us achieve an ‘ordered state of mind’ that is highly enjoyable. I’m wondering whether the calmness you experience is something similar.
Bridget – given that subtle positive emotions are largely overlooked in PP, I wouldn’t be suprised if these are the emotions that we experiencing flow. Experiences like rockclimbing are a little different because they of the inherant danger and probably reflect a small part of the flow experience for most people.
I still remember the early research on flow that showed that driving was the most common experience of flow for most people.
It’s interesting that I would describe mediation as having the same feeling as flow.
That’s an interesting point about driving and flow; I like driving and maybe that’s because it’s a flow experience, however I know plenty of people who don’t enjoy it in the slightest.
If you or anyone can remember the reference for that particular research about flow & driving please let me know.
Good point about which positive emotions are linked to flow, and yes I’d like to know more about the more subtle positive emotions, like contentment, satisfaction etc. They are a bit of a poor relation I agree.
Sorry for the delay in responding; your comment has just appeared even though it was posted before the others.
Thanks for your feedback on the article, I really appreciate it!
Great article! For me, flow is a non-efforting space. It is not cluttered with mental activity. I call it the zone. Everything seems effortless and there is deep satisfaction and enjoyment in the activity, answers flow to me (in a non-rational way) and time becomes irrelevant. Unfortunately, something external that requires my attention shows up and flow is out the door!
Thanks for your comments, and I agree with your description of the flow experience.
Once in flow I could, if not disrupted by something external, spend my whole day there, and I think that that is not always productive. So I’m experimenting with using the alarm on my phone to create shorter bursts of flow instead. I’ll see how that goes!