Positive Psychology

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The Flow concept came about in the 1980s through Csikszentmihalyi's studies of creativity when he noticed that certain artists became so absorbed by what they were doing that they did not notice time, hunger or fatigue and then lost all interest in the final product once it was finished (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Since then a lot of studies have been done exploring this profound task-absorption, intense enjoyment and cognitive involvement that results in doing something for its own sake rather than for the end result or exterior reward. A lot of research was done especially in Italy on the experience of flow in schools, sports, businesses and politics and it was found that flow could be experienced both at work and play.

Flow and China: Chinese students favour inter-connectedness over results
Apart from questionnaires, the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) is a favourite tool in research as it signals individuals several times a day to stop and answer a few questions regarding what they are doing, how involved they are and what they are feeling. Initially it was thought that the balance between high challenge and high matching skills defined flow and wellbeing but since then it has been noted that certain students prefer low challenges matched with high skills as do for example Chinese students who might find well-being in inter-connectedness with others, prudence and attention to detail contrary to Japanese students who enjoy most when challenges exceed skills (Moneta, 2004).

Building psychological capital
Flow studies have been important in helping schools and businesses to facilitate wellbeing through understanding which activities create engagement, development and contentment in people's lives. Seligman compares the involvement with pleasures which takes no effort or skill, with gratification which involves psychological growth or building psycological capital advocated by Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory (Seligman, 2003).

Seligman seems to emphasize that the flow state is so absorbing that positive or negative feelings are not felt because of the concentration and involvement are so powerfully experienced that time as it were stops and self-consciousness disappears. He explains the increase in early onset of depression is a result of choosing self-absorbing pleasures over personal development and challenges. An investment in learning optimism and hope, practising forgiveness and gratitude and being more mindful can cultivate a deeper sense of fulfilment and well-being.

Flow is the most satisfactory state when one works on improving material conditions while also pursuing spiritual means. This might come about through a four step development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, 2002).

  • Initially, self-preservation and survival are important and meaning is found through survival, comfort and pleasure

  • as one feels safe, one expands consciousness towards family, community, neighbourhood, religious or cultural groups. This would result in a certain conformity to what is regarded as normal and acceptable

  • the third level can develop when a person starts reflecting and brings about a personal conscience according to personal values that give meaning to that person's existence. The person absorbed by improving, developing and materialising their particular goals would experience inner harmony flow as all actions are congruent with what is important to the person.

Fourth step: Shifting goals towards something larger: A transcendent entity.

  • Csikszentmihalyi describes the fourth step coming about perhaps through a midlife crisis, career change or increasing awareness of one's own limitations which helps the person shifting their goal to something larger than the person, a transcendental entity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, 2002:222). This process describes what can happen but might only be chosen by the few who are willing to suffer persecution and hardship and not give up striving in spite of pressures to conform and the many other options available to them.

Mindfulness leading to Flow
Mindfulness might be a way of experiencing flow through allowing oneself to emerge with the moment and open up to creativity, imagination and wisdom rather than chasing after a goal or specific result. Micro-flow has yet to be explored as 'sacred moments' that might be experienced throughout the day in observing a beautiful sky, listening to the birds, watering a plant or interacting with the environment. It seems that many women experience leisure time flow through interpersonal relationships with children, family and friends while men might tend to experience leisure time flow through participating in sports or high skilled hobbies (Bryce & Haworth, 2002).

Conflicting ideas of Flow:
It seems that there are a number of conflicting issues around flow as Seligman seems to dismiss feelings as irrelevant while Bryce and Haworth focus on enjoyable flow. I suppose, flow is mostly understood as an interplay or dance between challenges and skills where a person meets the challenges that evolve through taking on a certain activity. I would favour the unification of Mindfulness, Flow and Spirituality that Snyder and Lopez (2007) link together as flow without meaning or direction could create destruction and harm should skills and challenges be chosens solely for the sake of enjoyment. The dark side of flow is the dependence or addiction a person can develop through ignoring other important aspects of life for the sake of an all absorbing activity (Partington et al., 2009).

Flow research seems to have contributed a lot of awareness around well-being in schools, the workplace and leisure-time which is to be welcomed. Why not help institutions and individuals to find holistic ways of developing and becoming engaged in absorbing, but meaningful challenges that match skills and support autonomy?

Additional sources:
Bryce, J. & Haworth, J. (2002). Wellbeing and flow in sample of male and female office workers. Leisure Studies, 21

Moneta, G.B. (2004). The flow experience across cultures. Happiness Studies, 5
Partington, S., Partington, E. & Olivier, S (2009.) The dark side of flow: A qualitative study of dependence in big wave surfing. Sport Psychologist, 23
Seligman, M.E.P. (2003). Happiness. London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (2007) Psychology. London, UK: Sage. (Chapter 11)

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