Life is busy. For most people, finding yet another activity to add to an already frantic schedule doesn’t sound very joyful.
But this is what led Hungarian-American Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to coin the term “flow” to describe a highly focused mental state. Today, his books on this positive mindset, starting with 1990’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, are in greater demand than ever before.
Someone in “flow” is so engrossed in an activity, concentrating solely and so much on it, that time seems to pass very quickly. This means they have mental time-out from their usual day-to-day worries.
Sydney-based psychologist Carl Beattie considers flow to be important for maintaining mental health. “Getting in the flow can help you recharge the batteries,” he says.
As a full-time science teacher and mother of two young children, Sydneysider Jeanine Potter, 43, doesn’t have much time for leisure activities. However, when her marking and lesson preparations are out of the way, and with her husband Nathan minding the kids, she hits the waves on a stand-up paddle board.
“I stick to what I know I can do and progress slowly, but once I get the first wave, I have to get another one,” she says. “It’s the achievement, I guess; little goals being reached.”
Flow is when a person’s skill level matches the challenge. If the two aren’t met, the person can either be bored or anxious. An experienced surfer, Nathan would be bored riding the waves his wife Jeanine catches, as there is no challenge involved. Jeanine, on the other hand, would be full of anxiety riding the two-metre waves Nathan enjoys.
When in a state of flow, a person is setting little goals and receiving immediate feedback on their progress. They feel as though they are achieving, which makes them carry on. “It’s always good to challenge yourself a little bit because that keeps you in the flow and keeps you stimulated,” says Beattie.
Jeanine sees the challenge of surfing as a mental break from her busy life. “I’m just thinking about the process of surfing, looking out for the next set coming through,” she says.
Surfing isn’t the only activity that can get you in this state of mind. Anything that is enjoyable and increases a person’s skill level can achieve flow. A game of chess can be challenging to learn; with each game, the player’s skill level is increased. Ditto playing a musical instrument.
Watching television and scrolling through Facebook can also put people in a state of total immersion, but they don’t put them in a state of flow. People may find these activities relaxing and time can fly by, but there is no challenge or sense of achievement. Often, people can feel like they have wasted their time by engaging in these activities.
However, when choosing a new hobby, it is important to persist with it and not give up too soon. Initially, there may be disappointment when the learning curve is bigger than what was anticipated. In this case, it may take some time to find flow.
Take, say, learning to play Baa Baa Black Sheep on the bassoon: with practice and patience, the challenge will be less daunting and the person’s skill will increase. “Nothing is truly exciting without a little anxiety,” says Beattie. “Excitement is anxiety, but it’s about manageable anxiety.”
When in flow, people manage their anxiety about the challenge required by the task. The achievement from this can put them in a positive state of mind, taking them away from their busy lives, even just for a moment.
This piece by Melissa Gerke was originally published on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald‘, 9 March 2019.