How to cultivate flow

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on flow. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

“There is never a good excuse for being bored,” writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.

There are opportunities for flow everywhere, even if they are difficult to find. But flow is different from many of the other happiness practices we’ve discussed so far – you can’t sit down for 15 minutes this evening and get into flow on command. The best you can do is create the ideal conditions for flow.

Your goal this month will be to figure out which activity brings you flow and try to spend more time on it. Follow the four steps below.

1. Survey your life

In one study, Csikszentmihalyi and his team asked people about how concentrated and in flow they were during a variety of daily activities. Hobbies, sports, and movies tend to give us the most flow (unsurprisingly), followed by working and driving – activities we tend to avoid when possible. In contrast, some of the activities we seek out – like watching TV, reading, and rest – give us less flow than average.

The point is that it’s harder than we might imagine to figure out what makes us happy. Sometimes the most fulfilling activities are clouded by society’s dismissive view of them, or our own preconceptions – think of the grown man ashamed of his train-tinkering habit, or the mother who feels guilty for wanting to go back to work.

So don’t assume you know which activities give you the most flow and make you feel your best. Take the Flow Profiler test to find out.

2. Pick a flow activity

When do you experience the most concentration and flow? If you’re anything like Csikszentmihalyi’s respondents, it’s likely to be during a favorite hobby or at work, or even while driving.

Once you find an activity to focus on, commit to spending more time doing it this June.

  • Flow in leisure. Try to marshal your reserves of effort to do more active leisure this month – playing sports or chess, scrapbooking, or starting a collection. Keep an eye out for hobbies or interests that grab your attention, and indulge them. As happiness experimenter Gretchen Rubin explains, sometimes we have to force ourselves to spend time on things we enjoy:

Read “Cultivate Your Passions”

  • Flow in physical activity. Play sports, exercise, walk – whatever gets your body moving.
  • Flow at work. Work is one of the easiest places to find flow, because many of the common triggers of flow are present there already. With a few small tweaks, we could stop staring at the clock as it inches toward 5 pm.
  • Flow through music. Have you ever sat down and really listened to music? For some people, this is a novel experience – we tend to listen to music when we’re doing other things, like exercising or commuting. Csikszentmihalyi found that the people who find flow in music have some sort of ritual, where they set aside special time for it and then turn down the lights and block out other distractions. 
  • Flow in relationships. Boredom can set in in long-term relationships, but flow can keep us energized and connected. Focus on having better conversations, trying new activities together, and setting shared goals.
  • Flow in thinking. You’ve probably heard those stories of prisoners in solitary confinement who ward off insanity by playing chess in their heads? They cultivated the flow of thought. If we can enter a flow state with only our minds as a tool, we achieve a profound type of freedom. We might get into flow by daydreaming, reminiscing about the past, or pondering the meaning of life. Reading is another popular way to find flow, although it does require a book (or a Kindle). Learning for the love of learning – like the flower enthusiast who could examine new species for hours – is another.

3. Add flow triggers

Once you’ve selected an area of your life where you want to cultivate more flow, it’s time to set up a flow-nurturing environment. In his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler explains all the “flow triggers” that his team and other researchers have identified. The people who spend more of their lives in flow try to structure their lives around these triggers – so try to add several of them to your activity of choice.

1. High consequences. This is the trigger favored by action-adventure athletes: they put themselves in situations – climbing a mountain without ropes, or riding monster rapids – where death is always knocking at their door. Thanks to evolution, our brains sit up and pay attention when our lives are on the line. But the risks that trigger flow can also be social, mental, or emotional, like asking someone out on a date or sharing a controversial idea. Risk is a trigger for group flow, as well – for example, bands are more likely to get into flow during a performance than a practice.

2. Rich environment. Evolution has also trained us to pay attention to things that are novel, unpredictable, or complex – after all, they could be dangerous! Putting ourselves in a new situation, whether that’s biking through a new city or going on a second date, uses this trigger.

3. Deep embodiment. Our body is often just a vehicle for transporting our head, many people joke, but sometimes it’s not. When all our five senses are taking in information, and we’re calculating our position and balance, we may get into flow. This trigger is present in yoga, martial arts, walking meditation, and sports.

Kotler explains the first three flow triggers in this video:

4. Clear goals. Like a mountain climber or a salesperson, we focus when goals are clearly defined: reach the summit or make the sale. Goals seem to provide a framework within which we can lose ourselves, confident that we know where we’re going.

This might be why marathon training is so addictive: there’s a clear goal and a defined plan on how to get there (free guides online tell you how much and when to exercise). It’s important that goals aren’t only long-term: “run a marathon” might be daunting, but “do a 5-mile practice run today” is doable. A dancer might find flow in learning new dance moves and perfecting her technique before a wedding or a dance competition. We might become more engaged in our morning walks if we try to explore new neighborhoods each time – goals demand attention.

When having a conversation, make it your goal to learn something new about your interlocutor, even if you think you already know everything about them. Other relationship goals might include finding a home with your family, educating your kids, or strengthening your faith. In a group setting, goals must be clear and shared to trigger flow.

5. Immediate feedback. Once we have a clear direction, feedback lets us know that we’re getting closer. Feedback might come from other people, from our own personal standards, or (most helpfully) from the activity itself – like the mountain’s basecamp getting further from our feet or the sales prospect nodding their head enthusiastically. The quicker the feedback comes, the faster we can course-correct and the more likely we are to get into flow. In groups, feedback takes the form of communication – like jazz musicians trading solos or family members sharing thoughts and laughter.

6. Challenges match skills. One of the reasons flow activities engage us is that they demand much from us: we have to bring our full concentration and abilities to tackle the challenges at hand. It’s hard to get into flow if the challenge is far beyond our means – which creates stress – or too easy – which creates boredom. Researchers suggest that the sweet spot is a challenge that’s 4% harder than our skills.

Listening to music is one of those domains that offers ever-increasing challenges, because we can learn skills to analyze every single piece of music on earth. We can also attend live concerts and experience the thrill of a group flow experience, with hundreds of people attuned to the same beats and harmony.

7. Deep concentration. Deep concentration can drive us into flow, where we don’t have the brain cells to spare for the sound of a text message or the feeling of inadequacy. This contributes to the sense that we’re acting almost automatically or spontaneously during a flow experience.

8. Control. We feel a sense of control in flow, but not the control a power-hungry manager has over his inferiors or a dog walker has on a straining leash. The control we feel in flow is effortless – in fact, it almost feels as if something else is in control and we’re just along for the ride. In groups, even though members have to collaborate and work together, they all feel competent and free to do what they want.

9. Focus on the present. The flow state feels so foreign because it’s rare for us to have moments of such pure clarity, without the background noise of past regrets or future worries cluttering up our heads. Flow is a state of harmony, where thoughts, emotions, and goals are completely aligned with the current task. In groups, this present focus takes the form of close listening to each other – we focus on understanding someone’s meaning in a conversation or hearing the nuances of a bandmate’s improving, instead of planning our next move.

10. Equal participation. In group flow, each member feels like they’re contributing to the conversation, performance, or product.

11. Blending egos. When someone hogs the spotlight, it’s very hard for everyone else to get into flow – think of the basketball player who won’t pass or the musician who insists on playing more loudly than everyone else.

12. Familiarity. Groups in flow, whether they’re sports teams, jazz ensembles, or book clubs, share a common language, knowledge, and assumptions. They don’t have to stop to explain lingo or decisions; everyone is on the same page.

13. Always say yes. Flow is collaborative, not argumentative. If groups are going to flow, they need to build on each other rather than tearing each other down. Improv comedians are encouraged to say “Yes and…,” which means accepting whatever premise someone else has offered and running with it, instead of having a rigid idea of the scene they want to create. “Always say yes” requires an interplay, a freedom, and an openness to go where others are leading.

14. Being creative. By definition, creativity involves taking risks and seeing new patterns (triggers 1 and 2). This combination of high consequences and novelty means that moments of creativity are often moments of flow.

4. Rest

Psychologist Daniel Goleman reminds us that focus is like a muscle – and muscles get tired. We can’t be in flow all the time, but there are better and worse ways to relax. Some of them require little concentration, like taking a walk in nature, while others are focused but still relaxing – think sex or meditation. Walking down a busy urban street, attempting to not get run over by cars and not collide with pedestrians, might not be the best choice. Recovery is the stage that comes after flow.

Try not to be discouraged if you have trouble getting into flow, particularly if you’re part of the 15% of people who never experience it. If you follow the steps above, you’ll still have gained some interesting insights into how to spend your time, and made part of your day more enjoyable. Flow may be elusive if we sit down and say, “Okay, flow time!” but it might sneak up on us when we least expect it.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What is flow?

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of flow

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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