Can You Access the Joy and Benefits of Flow in Lockdown?

Recent quarantine study finds certain pastimes result in less worried mindset.

Posted May 25, 2020

Mensatic/Morguefile
Source: Mensatic/Morguefile

Flow: that's the state of mind you may enter when you are fully engaged in some intrinsically rewarding activity. And that, for many people during a global pandemic, may not happen all that often.

Consider lockdown, the absence of usual jobs and accustomed social interactions, homeschooling kids who are climbing your legs or the walls and interrupting your focus in their own efforts to combat boredom. Those are a lot of flow-breakers right there. 

Yet it's possible to enter a flow state even during an extended quarantine. In fact, a recent study under review, "Flow in the Time of COVID-19: Findings from China," examined whether flow or mindfulness might be useful coping resources during this stressful period. The researchers included four from the University of California, Riverside, including lead author Professor of Psychology Kate Sweeny, and five from Chinese universities. The study had 5115 participants in Wuhan and other major COVID-19-struck cities complete an online survey assessing experiences of flow, mindfulness, and well-being.

As you would expect, the longer the quarantine, the poorer participants' reported well-being. The key finding, though, was that flow—but not mindfulness —made a significant difference in well-being. People who experienced high levels flow showed little or no association between quarantine length and low scores in the domain of well-being.

Flow wins.

While mindfulness is part of many meditation practices and is a useful tool in psychology, medicine, and healthcare, it may be the antithesis of flow. Whereas flow reduces self-awareness and awareness of your environment, mindfulness draws your attention to internal and external experiences.

If you're coping with a situation in which you want time to pass more quickly, flow is wonderfully distracting. Longer periods of confinement and isolation tend to exacerbate worries and the stress of uncertainty, with little else to think about. But if people engage in activities where their attention is fully required, a long stretch of days and weeks under quarantine feels more tolerable.

Although this study did not ask which particular activities brought on a flow state most reliably, it has been found in copious flow research by Csikszentmihalyi and others that flow activities are highly idiosyncratic. What it takes are activities that provide some challenge but are not too hard nor too easy, and that offer feedback on your progress. The creative arts are perfect for finding this balance, but so are learning geometry or a language, as are more mundane tasks if you can find or manipulate the challenge in them (as in, how many socks can you pair up before the egg timer goes off?).

When people are unable to perform their usual jobs from home, all that unaccustomed unfilled time can loom uncomfortably. Even a skim of social media will show that some people are getting far less done than they feel they should be accomplishing, in spite of all this unstructured time on their hands. And maybe that's part of the key: we need to structure our goals and our time, even a little, to find ourselves slipping into a flow state.

Being in flow seems to stop time. Then may we conclude that reading or television-watching "count" as flow-worthy activities?

Does TV count?

"My lab has actually been thinking a lot about whether and how activities like reading or watching TV and movies could induce flow," writes Sweeny.

These activities can certainly help the time pass quickly, but they fall short in other characteristics of flow activities: challenge (at least in the typical sense) and tracking one's progress in the task.

Having said that, my grad students are developing some studies to test whether these kinds of activities can be cognitively and/or emotionally challenging in a way that creates flow. For example, I'm really into detective novels these days, and the challenge of figuring out "who done it" might be enough sometimes to create something akin to a flow state. Other times, and with other media, I don't think I quite get there—it's more about zoning out than engaging.

Streaming a series from another country, where you read the subtitles while attempting to match the spoken words to their translation, you may find the challenge enhances your experience. I recently watched a Portuguese detective series, and I delighted in reading the subtitles and listening to the unusual (to me) spoken language and how it differed from the more familiar sounds of Spanish or French. For instance, the name Lopez was pronounced as one syllable, something like Lopzh, long 'o' with a fuzzy ending.

In addition, readers of literary novels may sometimes stop to note the language itself. I will occasionally grab an astonishingly apt sentence or paragraph that I may be able to quote later elsewhere. Writers, I believe, often read more actively, which makes a form of flow more likely to result.

Puzzling over the role of puzzles. 

Many individuals, apparently, have found jigsaw puzzles to be a deeply engaging and enjoyable way to spend free time these days, according to Richard Godwin, writing in The Guardian. "Yes," admitted Godwin about having completed a challenging puzzle,"this was a decadent amount of time to work on something so pointless. But sometimes, pointlessness is precisely the point."

When Godwin questioned puzzle purveyors, he found that their sales have increased to Christmas levels lately. He quoted author Margaret Drabble, who loved puzzles, "They give you an illusion of order and progress when all around is chaos."

And the hardest ones can certainly stir up your visuospatial cognitive abilities, according to a study Godwin mentioned. Another of his puzzle-doing interviewees mentioned the need to focus in on one task for hours. Focusing in like that is one of the hallmarks of a flow state, as is having a goal to work toward.

Finally, choosing and working toward our own low-pressure goal may be just what we need to cope with the nebulousless of a viral quarantine.

(c) 2020 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.