This One Behavior Boosts Well-Being More Than Socializing
Examining the effects of the "flow" state.
Posted December 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Cultivating daily flow-like experiences is associated with greater well-being.
- Parenting is highly correlated with flow-like moments.
- Unfinished work tasks sap one's joy and decreases chances for flow.
For many of us who have been working from home over the past few years due to the pandemic, boundaries between our professional and personal lives have blurred, making it harder for us to be fully present at work and with our loved ones. Not to mention the added stress of our physical boundaries. Living in close quarters around the clock with our spouses and children can be challenging as well. Naturally, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and fall into unhealthy behaviors.
In our last couple of posts, we discussed the importance of self-care practices, in particular, mindfulness and self-compassion, two scientific ways of authentically caring for ourselves. Unlike self-indulgence, when we practice self-care, we are deliberate in our actions and focus our attention on practicing healthy habits.
In this post, we’d like to introduce a third intervention to help foster well-being: cultivating more flow-like experiences into our lives.
Being in “flow” isn’t the same as "going with the flow"
Pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a co-founder of positive psychology with Martin Seligman, is best known for the psychological concept of “flow,” an optimal experience and state of being in which we are so deeply immersed in the moment that time goes by and nothing else seems to matter to us.
In his bestselling book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi, states “contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Think of the gymnast who leaps into the air and seems to magically pull off that double layout, the virtuoso pianist who dazzles us with her Rachmaninoff riffs, or the brilliant mathematician who seems to have a sudden epiphany solving the most complicated problem.
When interviewed, these individuals usually describe these moments as being in a state synonymous with the characteristics of flow.
While it may look easy when we witness a flawless performance on the mat or the stage, or the mental gymnastics of the genius mathematician, what we don’t see are all the countless hours of effortful practice behind the scenes.
Flow doesn’t just naturally happen. It takes work and focused attention.
Interestingly, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s groundbreaking research, some of the lowest times of flow are during our leisure time, like while watching TV. That’s especially unfortunate since that tends to be how many of us spend our free time.
To quote social psychologist Chris Peterson, “If we know what we know, why do we do what we do?”
Good question, Chris. We used to joke with him about that. We are grateful to him and Csikszentmihalyi, two titans of positive psychology, for their wisdom. While they are no longer with us, their powerful research lives on and continues to help millions throughout the world.
When we first learned about the notion of flow, we both made conscious efforts to manage our time wisely in order to increase our chances for optimal flow-like experiences. And since we are only human, we often fail. But we do our best to try again.
How to cultivate more flow-like experiences
No need to fret if you can’t do a layout, or if mental gymnastics isn’t your forte. We don’t need to be expert athletes, musicians, or mathematicians to start experiencing more flow in our lives. What we do need to do is to become more aware of how we tend to spend our time and perhaps choose our activities more wisely.
Something as simple as engaging in more quality time with our children can increase our chances for flow-like states. Of course, it’s not just if but how we interact with our children.
If we are rushed, distracted, and grouchy when interacting with our kids, that doesn’t bode well for anyone. In fact, it may decrease our well-being, and theirs. However, if we are calm, present, and engaged, we may increase our chances for flow-like experiences. And we will likely cultivate greater moments of connection with them.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers found parents who experienced moments of flow while interacting with their kids were happier, more satisfied, intrinsically motivated, and enjoyed greater well-being.
In fact, of all the activities that parents tend to do every day, the findings suggest that playing and interacting with their children may lead to greater experiences of flow and more positive emotions—even more than engaging with their spouse, socializing with others, working, or engaging in leisure activities!
One thing that disrupts flow, according to another recent study, is when we leave many tasks unfinished at work during the day. They have a tendency to creep into our brains and distract us from fully engaging in enjoyable activities later in the day. (Who can relate to those ruminating thoughts that keep nagging at us about that unfinished PowerPoint presentation while we are trying to focus on deeply connecting with our kids?)
Of course, it’s not always possible to finish everything on our plate all of the time. No need to fret. It appears it’s only when we regularly leave a number of tasks uncompleted that it deters us from experiencing flow-like moments.
In sum, let’s remember to try to cultivate more flow-like experiences into our lives by being more mindful and proactive about how we spend our leisure time. Stop procrastinating. Make it a habit to finish those pesky work projects.
Next, instead of plopping in front of the TV, actively engage with your kids. Give them your full presence. Choose activities that are nurturing. Perhaps, an outdoor game of flag football to exert your muscles. Getting outdoors is associated with an extra boost of well-being!
However, if indoor, cerebral activities appeal more to you and your family, connect over a round or two of Bananagrams (our favorite!) or another fun board game.
Whatever you do, remember the importance of cultivating daily moments of flow and connecting with your kids and loved ones.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Peifer, C., Syrek, C., Ostwald, V. et al. Thieves of Flow: How Unfinished Tasks at Work are Related to Flow Experience and Wellbeing. J Happiness Stud 21, 1641–1660 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00149-z
Shoshani, A., Yaari, S. Parental Flow and Positive Emotions: Optimal Experiences in Parent–Child Interactions and Parents’ Well-Being. J Happiness Stud (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00427-9