“Like a graceful vase, a cat, even when motionless, seems to flow.” — George F. Will
You have either had the experience or heard about it: Flow has been in the global consciousness since Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was released 35 years ago. Back then it was revolutionary, now it is woven into our popular language and culture. We’ve heard about it, read about it, and want it in our lives.
But what is flow? It is a very enjoyable experience marked by a sense of timelessness and engagement. In his own words, Csikszentmihaly said it is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. 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.”
Once we have experienced a flow moment in our lives we usually crave it happening again. We all want to be in the zone, in the groove, and over the years researchers have determined the conditions under which flow happens. They are rather specific:
- The event is freely chosen.
- The goal is clear.
- Feedback on our performance is immediate and concrete.
- The challenge of the task is high, but
- We have the skill and competency to meet the challenge.
It’s the balance between the challenge and our skill that keeps us engaged in flow. When the balance is off we experience the other end of the spectrum: boredom, apathy, and anxiety.
Flow has happened for me when I am cycling on the back roads alone and falling into the rhythm of the moment. But I’ve also gotten this flow experience when a writing project has taken on a life of its own, or when reading a book I can’t put down. It is likely you’ve had some of these wonderful moments too. The times we feel in sync with all that is, we are in flow.
But flow doesn’t always happen alone. There is something very flow-inducing about doing things with others. In the days when I ran marathons and half-marathons, being part of something greater than my singular effort was exhilarating. I still get that feeling today, but it happens in the 10K and 5K races. It is just as wonderful, but a shorter duration. Then there are the times I’ve been to a play or a concert and involved with a group of people experiencing the same thing. That nudges me into the zone as well.
Finally, there are intimate moments with my family and friends, or telling stories or giving a lecture to a very responsive crowd. These experiences somehow are the best. The sheer joy of these moments is hard to put into words, but I do know one thing: I want them to happen again.
We flow alone and with others. Research published in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that as much as we might like a solitary flow experience, we like it better when it is shared with others. The research found that when comparing three flow conditions — solitary vs. co-active or interactive social flow — the two social conditions were more enjoyable.
Co-active social flow occurs when we are part of a group doing something, from watching TV with friends to participating in a foot race. Interactive social flow is enhanced through social interdependence. This occurs when we are part of a collectively competent group where there is complementary participation and a surrender of the self to the group. If you have ever watched a highly skilled baseball, lacrosse, or basketball team working together you have seen social flow in action. People participating in this have surrendered the self and acquire a collective sense of purpose and meaning. (The 1969 Mets come to mind, but you can plug in your favorite soccer or hockey team, particularly when they are winning.)
Many of the indicators for social flow are similar to what we’d experience in solitary flow, but with a few interesting additions:
- There is emotional communication during the group as members are participating.
- Emotional contigation within the group and observers external to the group. (Yes, the fans of the ’69 Mets come to mind.)
- Joy, elation and enthusiasm are felt and shared throughout the group performance.
- Rituals are put in place to institutionalize social flow. The participants want to find ways to make this happen again.
What does this mean? The conclusion by the author of the study concerning flow was simple: “Doing it together is better than doing it alone.”
So for now it means we need to find those things that bring us personal, solitary flow, but seek out and savor mutually desirable and shared events. These social encounters are experiences that allow us to feel most alive. Other researchers have found ways we can cultivate flow experiences, such as being in touch with our signature strengths.
As mentioned, flow has been around since the 1970s, but that is only the flow we know from research. True flow goes back a ways, if this This quote from Chuang Tzu, who lived 389-286 BCE, is any indication.
“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
Wishing you patience and peace,