Flow: An Antidote to Anxiety and the Secret to Happiness


800px-South-GoodwinFlow is the mental state of a person when he is completely immersed in one activity or event—a moment in which all of his energy is focused on one thing so that he is oblivious to the world around him. It is a single-mindedness that harnesses all emotions into one action to produce a kind of rapture. Flow is a moment of nothingness—when all senses are so focused on an activity that a person isn’t able to feel anything in his environment—and that nothingness or suspension of feeling can be experienced as bliss.

Sounds good, huh?

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi first defined the positive psychology concept of “flow” after interviews with artists who would get so immersed in their work that they would forget about eating, sleeping, showering. He wanted to understand this phenomenon and see if there was something in their paintbrushes that made them so motivated and happy.  In his article, “Flow Theory and Research” in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, he lists six factors as encompassing an experience of flow:

1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment

2. merging of action and awareness

3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness

4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity

5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered

6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

As part of his fantastic Ted talkCsíkszentmihályi described the experience of a leading composer of music in the ‘70s:

When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself. Now, I could look at my hand for two weeks, and I wouldn’t feel any awe or wonder, because I can’t compose.

Then he summarizes the flow experience of all the people he has interviewed around the world:

Now, when we do studies — we have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people — from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds — who enjoy their work. And regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.

I’m especially intrigued by flow because this state serves as an antidote to depression and anxiety. Research indicates that people who experience flow on a regular basis have lower levels of depression and anxiety. The lack of flow in one’s life sustains anxiety. Conversely, anxiety impedes flow.

These fleeting moments of focus and single-mindedness are crucial to achieve mental health or bits of sanity for folks like me that have an inability to relax and be in the moment.

Awhile back, in the midst of some major “flow envy”– watching my husband take a practice swing in our backyard, concentrating on his golf stroke like a surgeon in an operating room, I decided that I would stop at nothing to get some flow. I tried reading a novel. Nope. My mind still wondered. I tried writing a novel—or at least something fun that I didn’t have to load on a blog platform. Again … intrusive thoughts. I envisioned playing the piano again, but I was too overwhelmed to sit down on the bench and fetch the sheet music.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, the optimal condition for flow to happen is when the challenge level of a task is high, met by the high skills of the person accomplishing the task. The state of “arousal” borders flow in that a person feels overly challenged, but doesn’t have enough skill to push her into flow. In a state of “control,” a person feels too comfortable for his skill level. By adding more challenge, he goes into flow, lucky dude.

I decided to fiddle with one of my core give-me-some-flow-now activities: swimming. Now swimming laps in a 25-yard pool gives me plenty of relief from my anxiety because of the antidepressant effect combined with the controlled breathing. Halleluja! However, I’m still going over my to-do list and thinking about what to do about five situations that are troubling me. So I decided to head to the Severn River that meets the Chesapeake Bay, where I would be swimming against a current and through some substantial waves, all the while watching for sea snakes and powerboats. The extra challenge—the fear factor—was enough to push me into flow.

I got flow! For 45 minutes I didn’t think about anything else but staying alive. My thoughts miraculously quieted. Without the help of vodka!

Csíkszentmihályi says that our task, the challenge of our lives, is to put more and more of our everyday life into flow. We can have flow at work, in our sports, in our spiritual lives, through art and music, and in our learning. Ultimately flow should lead to mental health and happiness not only during the activity, but for the long run.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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