One of my favorite stories from the best-selling book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD (say Chick-SENT-me-high a few times to get it down) is the account of a woman with severe schizophrenia, who had been hospitalized for 10 years in the Netherlands without improvement. Her medical team arranged for her to complete Csikszentmihalyi’s flow-monitoring program. A timer went off throughout the day, signaling her to complete a minisurvey on her emotions, thoughts, level of engagement, etc. Her report showed that her only positive moods occurred while manicuring her fingernails. So the medical team arranged for her to be trained as a manicurist. She began to offer manicures to other patients and soon became well enough to be discharged. A year later she was leading a self-sufficient life as a manicurist.

For this woman, tending to nails led her to be in flow, defined as a state of complete absorption in a complex and challenging activity that stretches one’s skills. Csikszentmihalyi has made the
exploration of flow the centerpiece of his career because he believes that being in flow generates the peak experiences in our lives. The more flow we experience, he suggests, the happier we are.

A Sense of Effortless Action

Formerly a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and now director of the Quality of Life Research Center
at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, Csikszentmihalyi has spent decades researching the psychology of optimal experience, or what he calls flow. “Flow is the experience people have when they are completely immersed in an activity for its own sake, stretching body and mind to the limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). Many people use the term flow to describe “the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone.” (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). Flow can also involve anticipating desired states—which can be as engaging as actually reaching those states; a good example is elite athletes using pre-event visualization.

Csikszentmihalyi (2000) initially portrayed flow as a “channel” representing an optimal balance between one’s perceived abilities and the perceived challenge of the task at hand; when this optimal balance is present, there is neither boredom (too much skill for the challenge) nor anxiety (too much challenge for the skill). Paradoxically, this balance enables a person to be fully engaged in the experience for its own sake and yet achieve optimal outcomes.

So what are the characteristics of a flow experience? They include clear goals,
decisiveness, the merging of action and awareness, complete (yet effortless) concentration, a sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, an altered sense of time, immediate feedback and an autotelic emphasis (Csikszentmihalyi 1993; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi 2002). The word autotelic is used to describe experiences where one is focused solely on the activity itself, not on how it will affect one’s ego (e.g., “If I do this, my friends will think I’m cool”). See the sidebar “How Do You Know When You’re in Flow?” for more on how the flow experience feels.

Flow, an Uncommon Experience

Having plenty of flow experiences in our lives enhances our well-being, yet in a German study only 23% of people surveyed said they often experienced flow and 40% rarely or never had flow experiences (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). So there is a lot of room for improvement. It’s perhaps especially crucial for children and adolescents to develop skills and activities that produce flow, bringing life satisfaction, self-esteem and efficacy early in life. Teens are much less likely to get into trouble if their lives are populated with flow experiences (sports, music, hobbies, and—for better or for worse—video games).

Most of us get the majority of our flow opportunities in our work, but often we don’t fully enjoy them because we are anxious about our to-do list or distracted by external pressures. Our leisure time offers its own flow opportunities in pursuits like challenging ourselves athletically, playing the piano or learning to cook. (Watching TV doesn’t produce flow, nor does eating in the absence of stimulating conversation.)

As a wellness professional or coach, you can add a new dimension to your sessions by introducing clients to the concept of flow and helping them discover ways to experience more of it in their lives.

A Health-Promoting Endeavor

Why should helping clients experience more flow be relevant to wellness professionals? First, recent studies have shown that life satisfaction and happiness correlate with better health and improved longevity; the impact is at least as potent as not smoking (Veenhoven 2006). Not only does happiness feel good, but happy people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, and they get sick less. Second, you can help clients think about how to make their exercise and healthy-lifestyle activities flow-generating; that is, challenging, absorbing and a slight stretch, without
becoming a trigger for anxiety.

Use the following steps to guide yourself and your clients toward more and better flow experiences in everyday life:

Assess and Discover Your Flow Experiences. Stop, think, identify and list the flow experiences in your life today—both at work and in your personal life. When do you lose yourself in an activity that uses your skills beautifully and leaves you energized when it’s done? Is it when you are teaching, or training, or learning? When you’re organizing your desk? Managing a fun work project? Having a stimulating collaboration with a colleague or partner? Or engaging a child to learn about the world?

What are your best skills? The higher the level of your skills, the better the quality of a potential flow experience can be. If, like me, you are what I call a “simplifier”—that is, you have a talent for simplifying and conveying complex concepts in a way that people grasp quickly—you will reach a high level of flow when you are presenting such concepts to a layman audience.

To pinpoint your strengths or talents, complete the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire (see the sidebar “A Shortcut to Flow: Engage Your Character Strengths for a Higher Purpose”) or ask those closest to you to tell you what they notice. Then think about all the ways you currently use your signature character strengths in your work and personal lives. When do you
use these strengths in ways that are so
completely absorbing that you lose yourself and time?

Make Today’s Flow Experiences Better. Set your stresses and strains aside so that you fully enjoy those activities that generate flow in your life. Before starting them, take a few moments to reflect on and connect with their higher purpose. Improve “relational flow” by adopting the intention to make powerful and energizing connections when conversing with others; listen with great care and then reflect what you hear with fun, creative twists. If anxiety arises because an activity is too challenging, set yourself a slightly lesser challenge.

Find New Flow Experiences. What activities could you turn into flow-generating experiences with a little tweaking? Challenge yourself to go a little beyond your comfort zone so that you move from autopilot to full engagement. I recall an Inner IDEA® Conference participant, who had a good sense of humor, deciding to turn her difficult conversations with her teenage son into engaging and fun interactions. Another participant enjoyed operating under some pressure and came up with the idea of setting a timer on her vacuuming so that she would feel challenged to vacuum thoroughly and quickly while not damaging any furniture.

Look for creative ways to engage your strengths. Are there new skills you want to learn? New business or personal goals you want to pursue? Perhaps you’ve been thinking about learning Spanish so you can connect better with your Spanish-speaking clients, for example.

Even generating new ideas is challenging, engaging and absorbing.

Design Workouts That Generate Flow. Add a small challenge to today’s strength workout. Stop fretting about life’s demands when you’re enjoying a vigorous walk in the great outdoors. Learn a new activity, such as yoga or Nia. Go on a bike ride with a friend to a place you’ve never been; plan and navigate the trip using a map.

For once, it’s quite simple: more flow means a better life and more happiness. What we focus on gets done. So focus on flow. Onward and upward.