Flow in the moment!
What is being mentally healthy? Not having depression or anxiety? Not having problems with sleep and appetite? Or living a happy and meaningful life? Or both? Many times we think of mental health as just the absence of mental illness, but in reality, mental health constitutes many elements other than illness. Being mentally healthy means being able to live a happy and fulfilling life, and not just living a life without any psychological problem. Many orientations in psychology focus on overcoming weaknesses, but just a few of them appreciate the strengths of human beings. Positive psychology is one such orientation. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, quotes, “the aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyse a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities”.
With this aim, followers of positive psychology are working immensely to develop various concepts that focus on emphasizing the strengths. ‘A state of flow’, is one such concept, evolved from positive psychology orientation. In this 20th century, we are friends with the term ‘speed’. From food to travel, we choose the speedy things. We are heading very fast towards our destination and forgetting to appreciate the beauty of the journey. Exploring this journey, getting involved in it, and learning from it, is a need of an hour and this whole process is what we call “a state of flow”.
By mentioning flow as a ‘state’, we are defining its temporary nature. The flow state is being fully involved, focused, and absorbed in the task at hand. When in flow, we fully surrender ourselves to that activity. This concept is developed by ‘Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’. According to him, being in the state of flow is "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. When in flow, the ego falls away, time flies; every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."A state of flow is like a river. A river does not stop. Its water keeps on flowing in possible directions. It changes its way whenever faced with any obstacles, but it keeps on moving. Similarly, when we are in flow we travel with the experience. Our thoughts don’t take a pause. When faced with obstacles we change our train of thought. Multiple perspectives come to mind and we try to explore every perspective without any filter. Thus, like a river, we keep on traveling! The last part of Csikszentmihalyi’s definition highlights that we use our utmost potential when we are in a state of flow. It indicates that this concept is not just abstract, but also cognitive! When we are fully involved in an activity, cognitive capacities like attention, concentration are fully utilized.
Why we experience a state of flow?
1. Intrinsic motivation
When we are intrinsically motivated in the task, we do it without any external reward, because we truly like doing it. Enjoying the task at hand is at the core of the state of flow. Making oneself intrinsically motivated is key to achieve the state of flow. We can increase our intrinsic motivation by taking a genuine interest in the activity and perceiving it as a learning opportunity.
2. Brain activity
Researchers observed that when the activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases, it leads to the state of flow. This part of the brain is responsible for working memory, short term memory, consciousness, and organization of behaviour, speech, and reasoning. Less activity in this area, leads to the disorientation of time, becoming less self-conscious, and less self-criticism, which results in more cognitive flexibility and creativity which then induces the state of flow. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, serotonin; play a major role in the experience of the flow state.
How to achieve a state of flow?
Staying focused on the task will allow us to immerse in it. Unwanted thoughts are bound to distract us, but whether or not to get distracted, is in our hands. Say a strong ‘no’ to irrelevant and disturbing thoughts, so that you will not get carried away with them. Focused attention to a particular thing is one of the strong ways to get connected with it.
Try to organize your schedule in such a way that you get enough time for all the important tasks. When we have enough time, we can engage in brainstorming, which enhances our involvement. If we have to do plenty of tasks in a short duration, then we are more likely to wind up the tasks, rather than enjoying the process!
The element of challenge
According to Csikszentmihalyi, making the task challenging is very important to experience flow. When the task doesn’t demand stretching your limits, it gets boring after a while. Thus, to sustain interest in the task, increase the level of difficulty. If the difficulty level is too high, then, learning new skills to cope with it, will also lead to the state of flow. The more challenging the task is, the more involvement will be there.
Clarity of goals
When the end goal is clear, we are more likely to be fully focused on the task. Clarity of goals enables us to plan and use our resources appropriately. Csikszentmihalyi explains that, when we have clarity of the goal and the steps needed to achieve it, we can reach the flow state. It’s like following the roadmap. When we know the destination and the points to follow to reach the destination, the journey becomes more enriching. Similarly, if we have a project to submit, and we know the expectation about the outcome and how to meet those expectations, we are more likely to get a fulfilling experience.
Allow yourself to fail
We are more likely to experience a state of flow if we set ourselves free. Setting ourselves free means exploring different probabilities; all of which doesn’t have to be right. At times, this exploration might take the wrong path, but it’s a part of the whole process of flow.Advantages of the flow
Happiness and flow are closely connected. We are likely to be happy after the experience of flow, as it gives us immense pleasure and a sense of contentment.
When we experience a state of flow in a particular activity, it gives us a sense of satisfaction. This in turn will also lead to satisfaction towards life. In a study conducted by Majda Rijavec and colleagues in 2017, it is reflected that there was an increase in life satisfaction of the participants, because of more frequent experience of flow at work.
Enhancement in the quality of work
A full involvement, complete attention, utmost use of the skills, and a sense of enjoyment, which are the characteristics of flow, produce quality work. When we are in flow, we stretch ourselves to yield a meaningful outcome, without getting stressed about it!
Dealing effectively with procrastination
We all procrastinate some or other time. One of the reasons for procrastination might be that we don’t find the job interesting. In a flow state, we truly enjoy what we do. Thus, when we have such an amazing experience in doing a particular activity, we are less likely to procrastinate later. In a study conducted by Eunju Lee in 2005, it is indicated that procrastination can be predicted based on flow experiences.
The beauty of the concept!
Let’s take a pause and think of how beautiful this concept is. We are very lucky to be able to experience such a wonderful concept. Being in flow is like leaving reality far behind and exploring the limitless nature of a particular thing! The state of flow truly assesses our capabilities. At times the outcome that we get is not as per the expectations, but a pleasant feeling of satisfaction stays with us.
I think, what matters is the ‘process’ than the actual outcome when it comes to flow! We start to think at one point, get truly engrossed in that thought, discover several perspectives; focusing on one perspective, we discover it completely, and the process goes on along with the time.
William Hill has written beautifully about the flow. He says,
“Open your heart and allow the flow to begin, The universal mind, no worries, we all win Nothing striving to become something, that are we, Now really open your eyes, tell me what you see”
Thus, with an open heart, anyone can experience this process of discovery! There is no win or loss when it comes to flow. We can be in the flow in a variety of situations; whether it can be work, or studies, or hobbies, or even when we are exploring ourselves!A negative side of the flow
Characteristics of flow at times resemble many other situations. We lose a sense of time even when we are not doing any important work. Whenever we play computer games, we forget what time it is, we are fully engrossed in it, we try to use all our potential to win that game; is it a flow state then? And the answer is yes. Until now we have seen all the positive aspects of the flow but now it's the time to get some reality check. If we are getting fully involved in the gaming, for example, and if it is harming other tasks with the highest priority, then this is the time to reflect on when should we sustain the flow experience and when should we set some limits on it!
We can say that being in flow is not always beneficial. We all have some set goals for us. If being in flow in a particular activity is not helping us to achieve these goals, then it’s a sign that one should break the state of flow in that activity. Thus, if experiencing flow in gaming is affecting academics or work, then one should set a limit on it. So, how should one enjoy playing games without being in flow completely? The solution is setting a time limit on such activities, enjoying them to the fullest within that time limit, and then resuming work/studies.
Let’s all remember that we are capable of understanding, experiencing, and creating a wide range of activities. ‘A flow state’ is one of these. Let’s free ourselves and absorb whatever we can.
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