Psychological Flow: The Best-Kept Secret To Happiness
These days, it feels harder than ever to be more engaged with your life.
More than two-thirds of us admit to feeling disengaged from our professional and personal lives . Half of us — no matter where we stand on the corporate ladder — feel exhausted and unmotivated by the things we do every day . About 43% of us feel like even our relationships with other people lack meaning .
This collective decline in our individual sense of purpose is linked to increasingly contentious relationships as well as a progressively greater sense of having lost control of lives .
It’s no surprise, then, that more people are looking for the secret to happiness than ever.
To Find Your Purpose, First Find Your Focus
Psychological flow has long been called the “secret to happiness,” though psychologists and behavioral scientists have really only begun to understand its relationship with being able to find your purpose and find happiness in life.
If you’ve ever gotten so caught up in doing something that you lost track of time and couldn’t be distracted from it (where you were “in the zone”), you were having a psychological flow experience. That’s what flow (or a psychological “flow state”) is: It’s the mental state where a person feels completely immersed in and energetically engaged with an activity [A]. You may feel innately interested in and good at the task at hand, and, while working on it, may lose awareness of anything and everything else around you.
The Simplest Trick To Feel More Engaged With Your Life
From a theoretical perspective, psychological (or creative) flow is closely related to mindfulness. What’s more, its physical, emotional, and neurological effects are not much different than those of meditation .
The primary characteristics of psychological flow include enjoyment of the activity, heightened levels of concentration, and a strong sense of being in control without exerting much effort . This reduction of “effortful control” over everyday action improves task performance and enhances creativity, attention span, mood, motor skills, learning, and memory . Plus, having an increased sense of perceived control over life’s circumstances and outcomes tends to diminish physically and emotionally harmful stress .
All of this, together, can help you feel more engaged with your life, be more productive, and learn how to love your life more.
The Most Powerful Way To Love Your Life
What makes psychological flow different from other mindfulness exercises — and the secret to happiness — is its relationship with your self-concept and sense of purpose .
Feeling a strong sense of commitment to valuable actions is essential to being able to find your purpose . And, the thing is, when you find your purpose, your wellbeing in the present and your health and happiness in the future both improve.
Scientifically speaking, much of the connection between psychological flow states and being able to love your life more has to do with how feeling purposeful — like your actions are meaningful, worthwhile, and supportive of your long-term goals and values — impacts your body down to a cellular level. Namely, it lowers your cortisol (stress hormone) output even under stressful circumstances .
This is important because cortisol is responsible for shortening telomeres and increasing telomerase activity in immune cells (which are the primary vehicles of aging and physical decline) . Moreover, people who feel like their work and actions are meaningful tend to take better care of themselves, are more open to health advice and intervention, and engage in fewer high-risk behaviors than people who feel their everyday activity lacks purpose.
What Every Flow Experience Has In Common
When you find your purpose, slipping into a flow state during goal-oriented work becomes dramatically easier. That’s because establishing a productive, creative flow takes little “staging” when you care about and enjoy what you’re doing.
Yet figuring out what makes you flow is also essential to being able to find your purpose — or, when you’re not engaged in goal-oriented work, at least find happiness — in the first place.
Indications For The Absence Of Flow
Psychological flow is difficult to truly and directly “measure” . Nevertheless, some performance metrics can serve as strong proxy measures of flow. For example, productivity, efficiency, and quality of work — as well as overall task achievement — often decrease as a consequence of the feelings and behaviors most likely to diminish or prevent flow .
Given what we know about flow characteristics, you’re not in a flow state if you feel:
- Bored or unfulfilled
- Uninvested in the task (you don’t understand or care about its purpose)
- Self-conscious (a sense that your work isn’t good enough or fast enough, or ultimately just won’t be enough)
- Conflicted (the work doesn’t make sense, support your values, or serve your goals)
Additionally, psychological flow states tend to be mutually exclusive of:
- Cognitive and emotional disengagement
- Comparing yourself to (or trying to out-perform) other people
Two Steps To Tapping Into Your Flow
Generally speaking, setting the stage for experiencing psychological flow comes down to removing any obstacles standing in your way. Besides external distractions (like a chaotic work environment), the biggest obstacles to achieving flow are internal: your mindset, your focus, your emotional state, and your internal dialogue.
Step 1: Identify What Is Getting In Your Way
A person’s experience of flow characteristics is most significantly impacted by:
- Whether your definition of accomplishment and perception of competence/mastery are self-referential or comparative .
- Whether you believe that you are capable of completing the task (or not) and how that belief manifests as feelings of self-consciousness and insecurity .
- Whether you engage in positive self-talk, neutral (instructional) self-talk, or negative self-talk about the task and during your attempts to complete it .
Knowing this, you can examine your feelings, behaviors, and work outcomes to identify the biggest obstacles to your experience of flow states.
For example: If you often feel self-conscious, insecure, and inadequate while working and about the work you complete, you’ll likely find that you are practicing perfectionism, which often manifests as negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is a limiting pattern that decreases participation, slows progress, and prevents goal achievement .
READ MORE: Positive self-talk
Step 2: Make Sustainable Changes To Foster New Flow Experiences
Recognizing when (and why) you aren’t experiencing psychological flow is just the first part of learning how to be more engaged with your life and, ultimately, be more productive in pursuit of your goals. What you do with that information is just as important.
Intentional mindset and behavioral modification is the best tool for enabling flow states to happen; your specific no- and low-flow symptoms can inform your choices about modifying your attitude and approach. For example, you can:
Adjust Your Mindset & Focus: Cultivating the mindset needed for psychological flow requires that you derive your sense of achievement from judging what you have done/are doing against your understanding of your own abilities, skills, and progress towards task mastery . Not how your work compares with others’ (or what you believe others’ work would be).
Likewise, your perception of the challenge level of a task is important. Insecurity and self-consciousness about whether or not you believe you can complete a task (or understand how to) lower your ability to enter a flow state .
Induce Flow With Goal-Oriented Imagery: Some research supports the idea that seeking out concrete representations of what task completion or goal achievement will literally look like can help people more easily enter a flow state . This suggests that activities like making a mood board and/or following social media accounts that illustrate your goals can induce psychological flow experiences .
Practice Meditation: Many meditative activities are shown to increase the chances of entering a flow state. These include focusing on your breath, body, or physical sensations as well as taking a walk or immersing yourself in a visual activity that takes you “away” from direct engagement with the task at hand . This explains why many writers and composers swear by “zoning out” during activities like playing open-world videogames and watching tennis matches as integral parts of their creative process .
Enter The Flow State Through Positive Self-Talk: Cultivating positive self-talk is strongly associated with being able to achieve a psychological flow state . So if you frequently engage in negative self-talk during work, it is important to interrupt, challenge, and reroute destructive and discouraging thoughts.
Practice Self-Cueing: Self-cueing is the act of creating an explicit (often verbal, sometimes written) representation of task and goal achievement. This often takes the form of a positive, process-focused affirmation, patterned like “I am a do-er; I will [take specific goal-oriented action] to [accomplish specific outcome]”.
Out of all the different types of positive self-talk, self-cueing is the most strongly associated with learning how to be more productive . That said, self-cueing to enter a productive and creative flow state can only be effective when you already understand and do not need to think much about how to perform the task .
Practice Negative-to-Neutral Self-Talk Conversion: This process turns negative self-talk neutral before converting it to positive self-talk. If you want to be more engaged in your life, taking time to deconstruct your negative biases — stripping them down to the simple reality of a situation — is just as important as learning to create positive thoughts about that reality.