In my work experience, my colleagues tended to know the state of flow well and be homesick for it if they weren’t experiencing it frequently. Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 2004). So finding ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences can be one way for people to work together to increase the effectiveness of their workplaces, schools, families, and other social groups.
Flow doesn’t come on demand, but there can be situations that make it more or less probable. In brief, here are some of the conditions that make flow more likely (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 74).
• Activities require ongoing learning of skills
• Skills are adequate to the task
• Clear goals
• Frequent feedback that can drive behavior adjustment
• Chances to concentrate on task
• Sense of personal control
• A sense that the activity is intrinsically rewarding
Each of these conditions suggest ways that people can work together to make flow more likely for each other.
The first two conditions imply a balance between skill and challenge – not a new idea. Children know this when they pick library books, looking for stories that are not too hard and not too easy.
What people may not realize is how dynamic this balance can be. As skills grow, challenge may lag, leading to boredom. Or new challenges may seem to exceed skill, leading to anxiety. Csikszentmihalyi calls the balance the “flow channel” and argues that boredom and anxiety both tend to lead to disengagement from the activity that was previously rewarding.
People sometimes find it hard to share that they have fallen out of the flow channel. Anxiety might be seen as inadequacy. Claiming boredom might lead to just more of the same kind of work. But falling out of the flow channel happens to all of us. The flow channel picture (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 70) can be an interesting way to conduct conversations about whether adjustments are needed. Here’s where I am right now with this activity — boredom. How can we make this activity more challenging in a way that will require me to learn new skills? Or anxiety. What kind of support can help me grow skills to meet this challenge — perhaps additional training, temporary informal mentoring or help breaking a task down into manageable pieces. Or perhaps I need a different kind of challenge – given my particular strengths. Activities that lead to flow tend to become more complex as challenge and skill both grow over time, which is why progress along the flow channel from A1 to A4 points diagonally upward.
Are the goals of an activity clear enough that one has something to strive for? Is there enough feedback that one can detect getting better? A piano player can hear what he or she is playing. A tennis player can tell how he or she is performing in a given match. A computer programmer can run a program to see if it works. But in some activities, the goals are so vague and the feedback so long in coming that people lack the ongoing reinforcement that supports intense absorption. So sometimes it helps to work with others to clarify goals and establish more effective feedback mechanisms.
Time to concentrate can be at a premium in some settings, particularly in environments where time is chopped up into small pieces. One of my work friends said that she came to work to go to meetings and then took the “real work” home with her. That can be tiring over the long haul. Perhaps a group of people needs to remove some of the forces that chop up time or find ways to consolidate blocks of time for focusing on valued activities.
As many of these conditions indicate, flow is very related to intrinsic motivation and conditions that support it, especially competence and autonomy. People are more likely to achieve flow when they feel they have a sense of control over how they approach a particular activity.
In summary, although flow may be a solitary experience, establishing the conditions that enable flow can be a social activity where people help each other clarify goals, understand feedback, protect blocks of time for concentration, gain personal control, and stay in the flow channel for particular activities.
There’s a common expression in workplaces: “What gets measured gets managed.” Bakker (2008) has been working on a reliable and valid instrument for the assessment of work-related flow, exploring the idea that “a flow experience is characterized by three different, but interrelated aspects; namely, absorption (i.e., total immersion in one’s work), work enjoyment, and intrinsic work motivation” (p. 409). For those who want to measure before taking action, Appendix 1 in this paper contains a 13-question instrument called the WOrk-reLated Flow inventory (or WOLF).
Wesson and Boniwell (2007) discuss the relevance of flow theory to coaching.
Bakker, A. B. (2008). The work-related flow inventory: Construction and initial validation of the WOLF. Journal of Vocational Behavior 72 (2008) 400–414. Available online for a fee at www.sciencedirect.com.
Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Penguin.
Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition 13 (2004) 746–761. Available online for a fee at www.sciencedirect.com.
Dietrich (2004) explores theoretical and empirical work in cognitive science and neuroscience as they relate to the concept of flow. Perhaps that will be the topic for another article.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Chapter 7, Living in the Present, includes a set of activities for increasing flow experiences
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). The concept of flow. In C.R. Snyder and S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, pp. 89-105. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0195182790
Wesson, K. & Boniwell, I. (2007). Flow theory – its applications to coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(1), 33-43. Retrieved May 26, 2008 from
Steinway artist courtesy of eflon
Rock climber courtesy of Cyron
Flow channel adapted from Csikszentmihalyi (1991, p. 70).
I would like to thank my fellow members of the Positive Workplace Discussion Group led by Jocelyn Davis. We have been discussing flow for many months with the goal of creating some kind of toolkit of ideas and actions that organizations can use to augment the workplace by increasing the probability of flow.
Thanks for this interesting article. I was intrigued by its title which suggested to me that the flow experience could be shared somehow.
In the article you say: “although flow may be a solitary experience” … What do you think, is flow by definition a solitary experience or does flowing together exist in the sense of sharing flow?
I once read that Paul McCartney and John Lennon would compose together behind a piano and loose all sense of time until the song would be finished. So, maybe your idea of ‘flowing togehter’ could be taken even further than you do here? And what would be its applications in organizations.
All the best,
Kathryn, I remember looking at some of the original research on flow. The most common experiences of low came from driving a car.
Good question. I was really actually more interested in making the point that preparing for flow can be social than making a definitive statement about flow being solitary. I look around for more about shared flow.
I haven’t seen that result, but I have read that people are more likely to experience flow at work than at home, perhaps because there is a larger likelihood of ongoing skill growth.
As an outpatient behavioral health therapist, I see so much potential in using this idea in treatment planning WITH the patient and not just FOR the patient. Helping them to set goals and objectives that allow them to feel the flow when working on themselves translates into making the new practices a life-long habit, rather than a temporary fix.
Thanks for the great article on “Flowing Together.” At the risk of being self-promoting, I’d like to suggest that Social-Emotional Leadership could be the framework with which people consider their own individual and collective “flow”. As Bonnie points out in health care, for example: setting goals WITH patients is crucial in their recovery. S-EL as a system of accountability could help in that process.
I also just wrote a shorter article on flow for my own brand new blog at “www.MeaningAndHappiness.com” where I mainly featured Csikszentmihalyi’s nine “elements of flow” and made a few comments. I really like your having brought in his “flow channel” idea and given some practical ideas for how to apply it.
I’m also intrigued by the concept of “shared flow” experiences. An example from my own personal life is ballroom and Latin dancing. When everything works, it definitely feels like flow. In recent years it’s been harder for me to achieve flow this way outside of high-level “dancesport” competition and practice because the level of challenge is usually lacking otherwise. My guess is that in a joint flow experience each person would have to be individually in flow, but I’m not familiar with any research that’s been done on this.
Stephen Wright, Ph.D.
Thank you for that perspective. I used your words (with attribution) in my newsletter version of this article.
I wonder if you’d get additional ideas for ways to work WITH people from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness — I added it to the references above. Along with her sets of happiness-increasing activities, she includes a discussion of finding a best fit for oneself, so one can be spending time on the activities that one is most likely to practice and build into habits. I wonder if the best-fit idea would be helpful to you?
Thank you for augmenting this discussion with a link to your blog. I’m going to add the full link here, in case someone reads this comment after you’ve blogged further for many months:
It is interesting that you bring up dance. My husband and I have been enjoying ballroom dancing together for several years. When we started, everything took concentration. Now many things are so automatic that my mind can wander. So yes, it’s a great example of the need to keep raising the challenge bar.
As far as merged flow, there are many activities where the partner’s skill can contribute to the challenge needed for flow — playing tennis and chess for example. But is there ever a merger of experience over and above two individuals individually in flow? I’m not sure what that would mean, but perhaps it happens in dance, in moments of ‘giving weight,’ when each person is moving in a way that would not be possible without the other and it is happening just right. It certainly is an exquisite experience.
I am not sure I understand what Social-Emotional Leadership means as a framework yet. But here’s a possible example of somebody behaving as a S-EL.
I sent a slightly different version of this article to my newsletter distribution list. One of the people on my list forwarded it to other people overseas on a special project with her. She highlighted certain sections that she thought were relevant to some of the strains they were experiencing — the need for active leisure to recover from work stress, the need to preserve time blocks for concentration, and the need to help each other deal with anxiety that comes with new challenges.
So given that the point of the article is that establishing flow conditions can be a social activity, is your point that it takes leaders to make that collaboration happen?
Yes, that is exactly my point. And your example is a perfect illustration of S-EL. Next, that woman may consider leveraging the other Social-Emotional Leaders on that project who have a similar vision of what they need to do in order to shape the culture of the team — to build the strengths, to lessen the strains.
It’s important to remember that everyone can be a Social-Emotional Leader. It is not a hierarchal model. We all have different strengths that could be leveraged at different times in helping our groups find flow — and flourish.
For example, someone high in social intelligence could suggest that the network (family, business department, sports team, etc.) consider its own betterment, someone high in wisdom & knowledge can help teach the network what flow is all about (a la your well written article) and someone high in creativity could suggest innovative ways that the group could explore finding its flow.
Or, as David Cooperrider wonders, imagine what’s possible when “strength meets strength.” When hope meets love, or when curiosity meets zest . . .
As a framework, paradigm, or way of being, S-EL simply provides a “call-to-action” many groups need to see how making the world a better place begins with our own, immediate environments — for which we ourselves are responsible.
Thanks for posting the exact address of my article on flow. Quite a few people subscribed to my blog as a result! I know that it must have been from readers of this page, because I haven’t announced it anywhere yet, and I’ve only told three friends. I’m open to any advice from anyone reading this as to how to make my articles available to a wider audience. They would certainly have more value in that case. The permanent address of my “flow” blog article will probably be “http://www.meaningandhappiness.com/zone-enjoyment-creativity-elements-flow/” once I figure out all the technical stuff.
Kathryn, if you and your husband are in the Washington, DC / Baltimore area, we should go out dancing. There are several nice places.
I just noticed the links to your professional web site “Theano Coaching LLC”(http://theano-coaching.com/) and your blog “Positive Psychology Reflections” (http://theanocoaching.wordpress.com/). I’ll have to take a look.
Speaking just subjectively as a participant (not as a scientific researcher), I think the perception of “joint flow” I sometimes experience in high-level dance differs from the examples you gave of tennis and chess in at least two important ways. In a competition, the opponent’s skill level contributes to the challenge I feel, and my opponent is cooperating with me in the sense that we’re both following the rules of the game. Afterward I may even have some appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of a high quality match, but I’m unlikely to think of that while I’m in flow. On the other hand, actively cooperating with someone, where we’re both affecting each other a lot as the process unfolds, brings the partner more centrally into my experience of the activity. A second factor is closely related: Especially in a fast Latin dance, what my partner and I do affects each other very quickly and very often (perhaps a fifth of a second?), much too fast for conscious analysis. When it’s really working, there can be flow AND an awareness of the partner’s involvement in my flow AND even a mutual glance that acknowledges it’s working. One of my coaches (a U.S. professional first place champion at the time) described this as “euphoric.” In a solitary experience of flow one might argue that any acknowledgment of getting it exactly right is a momentary lapse from flow, but in my experience of this while practicing Latin dance, it doesn’t feel like a lapse. It feels like shared flow.
Stephen Wright, Ph.D.
Nice blog you shared !! I love this post !! So thank you so much ..