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Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing 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.

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?

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.

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.

The research concludes that “performing [a flow activity] by oneself is joyful, but not as joyful as performing with another person.”

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.

Volleyball anyone?

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.

Photo Credits
From Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Beach volleyball courtesy of sea turtle
In Sync courtesy of sea turtle

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Manuella 5 March 2013 - 12:16 pm

I agree. When I look at myself, I like to swim 3 km in one hour at least two times a week and it makes me feel happy. But biking with my husband or a friend gives more satisfaction and is more enjoyable; there is the challenge, the social interactivity, the performance level, the taking care of, …

Lisa Sansom 5 March 2013 - 2:30 pm

Thanks for this Jeremy – very interesting! Of course, it also makes me wonder about individual personality differences. For example, there are those who are “naturally” drawn to more individual sports and there are others who seem more “naturally” drawn to more team sports. If you were to ask an individual sports enthusiast to play a team sports game, would that flow / enjoyment rating still be higher?

What about using strengths? Those high on a strength of teamwork (for example) might be more social-flow and those high on a strength of something that’s more individualistic might rate higher the individual-flow?

Let alone the standard introversion-extraversion dynamic…

I’d hesitate to tell everyone that they should engage in social flow activities as a result of this study. I think there are still likely to be profound individual differences at play, and we should continue to be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach. 🙂

Jeremy McCarthy 5 March 2013 - 2:53 pm

I agree Lisa, thanks!

Scott 6 March 2013 - 9:14 am

Love your curiosity about Walker’s choice for flow activities and the resulting conclusions. I’m wondering also if this is a case of what is being measured. Measuring for enjoyment is one aspect of a flow experience, but challenge, mindfulness, meaningfulness could also be outcomes and might show up differently depending on the social or independent nature of the activity. I love basketball and I enjoy the flow that comes when I am in a great game with a team that is really cohesive. There is an “enjoyable” flow that comes from that activity. However, I also experience flow when I’m shooting baskets alone. I can get lost for hours and I’m incredibly focused, mindful and in flow. If you asked me which of the two is more “enjoyable” I’d probably lean toward the team game (maybe because I’m an extrovert). However, if you asked me which was more challenging, or where I was more focused and lost in the moment, I might choose the solitary activity.
Walker’s results seem to be a direct result of what he was measuring. So, that is valid. But I wonder about the results if he measured for other aspects of flow.

Kimberley Seitz 6 March 2013 - 12:49 pm

Hi Jeremy,
Your article was extremely helpful, and I wanted to thank you for it. About a year ago I made the jump from corporate America to running my own consulting/coaching business. While I experience a lot of joy and passion in running my own business, and the work I do aligns with my strengths, I was struggling to figure out why I missed having a partner so much. Now I understand that part of the experience we shared was social flow, and that’s missing when you’re a single entrepreneur. I find that the moments when I get to connect with others and work on something that we’re both passionate about are the times when I’m the most happy. Unfortunately, those moments don’t happen as often as I like, so know I’ll have to find some replacements that bring that type of flow into my life.

Thank you for giving words to my experience. I know understand more about what I’m looking for and need in my life.

Jeremy McCarthy 6 March 2013 - 2:11 pm

Hi Kimberly, What you say resonates with me also. I have always steered away from becoming an independent consultant because I thought I would miss the team aspect and interaction from working in an organization. A new trend recently has been to create social work hubs where groups of independent consultants can share an office space and support each other with regular brainstorming sessions or networking events for mutual cross-marketing. If I was an independent consultant, I would probably try to find a community like this to participate in.

Kimberley Seitz 6 March 2013 - 2:34 pm

Thanks Jeremy. It’s funny to be pulled in 2 different directions. I love being my own boss and getting to work on projects and I love and with people I enjoy, but I definitely miss the partnerships and relationship opportunities that come from working in an office.

I will have to investigate social work hubs more. I live in a small rural area, so it’s doubtful we have any here; however, I might be able to at least find something virtually.

I appreciate the idea.

Best to you!

Jeremy McCarthy 6 March 2013 - 2:35 pm

Maybe you can start the first one in your area! 🙂

Judy Krings 6 March 2013 - 7:50 pm

Kimberley and Jeremy, ditto what you said for me. I asked myself the other day, “Why do I spend so much time studying positive psychology and interacting on group calls, blogs, and classes.

Your article helps me understand why. Even though it is not the sheer joy of playing on a team, many times when I get off an interactive call like the one with Louis Alloro the other day at SOMO Labs, I felt like I was back in college playing my beloved sports. It is words now that trump for me like sports used to. Not that I don’t love a gab with girlfriends walking.

I had thought of FLOW much for as getting lost in my passions alone. I had not considered group activities. This puts a whole new positivity spin on learning. Now every time I attend a call with other coaches I will smile and know I am soon going to be into fun Flow!

Many thanks!

oz 7 March 2013 - 5:02 am

Lisa is spot on.

And of course there is the question of the relevance of the study – conducted on uni students. Personally I know what was a source of flow as an adult is far different to that when I was a uni student

Marielaina Perrone DDS 30 April 2013 - 11:56 am

Very well said. Each situation has its own unique challenges and “flow” as you put it.


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