Come into the flow
Everyone knows the good feeling when they are completely absorbed by what they are doing. According to psychologists, we can even contribute to such productive moments occurring more often.
My thoughts are clear and focused. I am completely in the here and now, absorbed in what I am doing. I feel good. The world outside is far away. I hardly notice myself and my worries. As early as 1975, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi used statements like these from athletes, artists, and scientists to describe those special moments when people become completely absorbed in what they are doing and forget everything around them. The American-Hungarian researcher, who worked for many years at the University of Chicago, gave this fulfilling state the name flow.
AT A GLANCE
FLYING HIGH WITH THRUST
- People who experience flow states at work or in their free time forget about time, themselves, and everything around them.
- According to research, this is accompanied by moderately elevated cortisol levels in the blood. Unlike stress, however, flow moments feel good and promote a sense of well-being.
- Flow also increases performance. To benefit from it, one should pay attention to light physical activation, appropriate task design, and regular breaks, among other things.
Since then, psychological research has provided a lot of evidence that the flow experience is usually not only perceived as immediately rewarding. If it occurs regularly, it can also increase general well-being, mental and physical performance, and life satisfaction. What could be more obvious than looking for ways to promote such moments in everyday life? Everyone is familiar with flow states, whether in leisure time or at work while jogging and playing games, making music and handicrafts, or during challenging tasks at work. Those who get into flow are often capable of extraordinary achievements. What is the reason for this?
The first answer to this is: Flow simply feels good! What gives us oblivious moments is what we perceive as beautiful - consequently, we seek out such opportunities more often and improve our skills as a result. As psychologists Stefan Engeser and Falko Rheinberg showed in a study published in 2008, students who got into flow while cramming for statistics did better on their final exams. Apparently, it helped them to study for the exam when such special moments occurred.
Julia Schüler and Sibylle Brunner, then at the University of Zurich, came to a similar conclusion the following year in a study of marathon runners. The more often the 65 amateur athletes surveyed experienced flow moments during training, the faster they ran the approximately 42-kilometer distance. According to the researchers, flow fueled the runners' eagerness to train, so that they ultimately went to the start line better prepared. The flow experience during the race, on the other hand, did not influence the run time.
In addition to the motivation effect, however, there is another reason why flow has a performance-enhancing effect. According to psychologists Anne Landhäußer and Johannes Keller from the University of Ulm, this is based at least in part on a special form of information processing that resembles tunnel vision. In the flow, we are highly concentrated, register details more clearly than usual, and tend to ignore other things such as our physical condition or worries and hardships. We also hardly notice the passing of time.
The flow short scale
To determine how much someone gets into flow while doing something, for example, researchers use a questionnaire called the Flow Short Scale (FKS). It was developed by psychologists Falko Rheinberg, Regina Vollmeyer, and Stefan Engeser and consists of ten statements about current activity, each of which is assigned a value between 1 ("does not apply") and 7 ("applies"). "I was completely absorbed by what I was doing" and "I had no problems concentrating at all" are two example sentences from the TCS.
This fits with the findings of our own research group, according to which flow experience is accompanied by a moderate increase in cortisol levels. This hormone is secreted into the bloodstream by the adrenal cortex, especially during stress, to provide the organism with additional energy, for example in the form of glucose. By activating certain receptors in the brain, cortisol increases our attention and willingness to learn. At the same time, the neurotransmitter makes it easier to block out unimportant information. Tunnel vision also ensures that we stay on task with greater stamina.
So is flow basically a form of stress? No! It is true that we are physically and mentally stressed in this state and that it consumes energy, which is why we cannot remain in it permanently. However, the level of arousal is lower than in negative stress. In addition, the subjective experience of control is generally high during flow. Everything goes easily, we are in complete control of what we are doing - quite different from the chaotic hustle and bustle in the office, for example, when new, unpredictable tasks are constantly coming at us.
This strong sense of control is probably one of the reasons why flow moments feel good and have an impact on general life satisfaction. As a team led by psychologist Clive Fullagar of Kansas State University (USA) reported in 2009, people who experience flow more often are subsequently in a more positive mood. Dutch researchers led by Evangelia Demerouti showed in 2012 that flow at work can even promote more active leisure time after work. However, this effect only occurred when respondents were able to "switch off" well from their jobs. A combination of flow at work and relaxation afterward, therefore appears to be the most favorable.
Psychologist Giovanni Moneta of London Metropolitan University believes that the increase in general well-being is the result of an exercise effect. Regular flow makes us approach new, difficult challenges with more commitment and increases the chance that we will master them. We experience the personal development that comes with it as very satisfying.
This seems all the more important when you consider how stressful many find working life in a globalized society. More and more people are suffering from stress-related illnesses, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) declared stress to be one of the greatest health threats of the 21st century. Flow research provides various starting points for how we can make our work healthier and more conducive: Among other things, they concern the respective task itself, the available resources, and the right level of physical activation.
The balance between should and can
First of all, it is important that the task in question is neither too easy nor too difficult. If the demands exceed our abilities, we quickly feel stressed; if, on the other hand, we are capable of far more than is required, we feel bored. So it's all about finding the right balance between what we should be able to do and what we can do. Flow occurs above all when both one's own abilities and the current demands are high. The motivational researcher Falko Rheinberg calls this the expertise effect: a practiced pianist or an experienced teacher is more likely to enjoy self-forgetful doing than, say, a piano student or a trainee teacher. As the educator Dirk Weimar confirmed in a 2005 field study at schools, challenging teaching situations in particular trigger flow states in teachers.
In this context, one more aspect is important: The balance between doing and being able to do is not rigid but changes continuously as we gain more experience and knowledge. In addition, psychologist Nicola Baumann and her team from the University of Trier were able to show that current demands should definitely exceed abilities somewhat, as long as they alternate with recovery phases. Accordingly, setting oneself realistic challenges - but challenges at that - and taking a short breather now and then in between offers the best guarantee for a sustainable flow experience.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi already counted clearly defined goals and feedback among the other conducive factors a good 40 years ago. Clear goals ensure that we can attach our performance to something and appreciate it accordingly. Only then do we also receive helpful feedback on how well we have achieved the goal - strengthens control. In practical terms, this means that instead of aiming for the big project completion in three months, for example, we should define daily or weekly goals. This makes it easier to stay in touch with your own progress.
10 tips for more flow
- Look for challenges that match your skills.
- Always take breaks from challenging activities.
- Set clear, achievable goals and get regular feedback.
- Create room for maneuver, for example by deciding for yourself when and how to complete a task.
- Make yourself aware of the importance of your tasks.
- Get support from others for difficult problems.
- Do important tasks in the morning, about an hour after getting up.
- Activate yourself with light exercises, such as a walk.
- When you are stressed, exhale slowly or do a relaxation exercise.
- Make sure to relax in the evening to effectively wind down.
In addition, varied tasks with room to maneuver help the flow. Let's take an office worker who always performs the same work steps in a predefined rhythm. The person in question would be more likely to find flow if he or she could complete various activities in a sequence of his or her own choosing. In most professions, one's own tasks can certainly be shaped to a certain degree.
In a study published in 2006, Evangelia Demerouti of Erasmus University in Rotterdam pointed to another flow factor: the subjectively perceived importance of the task. If you keep in mind the meaning and purpose of what you are doing, you increase the chance of experiencing flow. As the word "subjective" suggests, this is a matter of individual evaluation. A cleaner in a hospital, for example, may realize how important hygiene is for the recovery of patients. In addition, Demerouti recognized support from others as an important resource: friends, relatives, colleagues, and supervisors. They can all help us not to become despondent in the face of challenging tasks but to see them as opportunities. Whether it's the boss coaching you, your colleagues helping you, or friends providing emotional support - just knowing that someone is supporting you strengthens your feeling of being in control of the task at hand. Which in turn promotes flow.
There is even evidence that flow is contagious. A team led by psychologist Arnold Bakker observed that the degree of dedication of music teachers rubbed off on their students: The more flow the teachers themselves reported when making music, the more likely this was also the case with the young musicians.
Last but not least, a portion of physical activation apparently also contributes to our experiencing flow states. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's first description of flow was already about rock climbing - a sport that is known to involve a certain risk and corresponding excitement. Falko Rheinberg described a heightened flow experience among graffiti sprayers, among others, who got a thrill from their illegal activities. Common denominators of such emotional excitement are the increased release of the stress hormone cortisol and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Is it possible to pave the way for flow with their help?
Corinna Peifer and her team dedicated their own study to this question in 2014, at that time at the University of Trier. The test subjects first completed a stress test in which they had to present themselves and answer critical follow-up questions, similar to a job interview. Those who showed moderately elevated cortisol levels and sympathetic activity after this excitement were more likely to get into the flow during a subsequent computer game than participants with only low or very high levels of arousal. The study also found that concurrent increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system also had a beneficial effect on the flow experience. The parasympathetic nervous system ensures relaxation in the body - it thus represents an antagonist of the sympathetic nervous system. However, as we know today, both systems can also be active in parallel to a certain extent. Apparently, this plays a role especially in coping with challenging tasks.
The fact that parasympathetic activity is related to flow experience again underlines the connection with well-being, which is also closely linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. This was shown by Bethany Kok and Barbara Fredrickson, then at the University of Northern Carolina, in 2010, when they first determined a physiological measure of how sensitive the heart rate is to a change in breathing - an indicator of parasympathetic flexibility - in 73 subjects. If we slow down our breaths or hold our breath for a few seconds, our heart beats more slowly; conversely, panting ("hyperventilating") increases the pulse. Since the connection between breathing and heartbeat is mediated by the vagus nerve, physicians refer to the parameter in question as vagal tone. It describes the ability to quickly return to a normal level after exertion.
As Kok and Fredrickson have now discovered through detailed, nine-week logs of the well-being and activities of their study participants, a pronounced vagal tone - i.e. a particularly adaptable parasympathetic nervous system - is statistically closely related to positive feelings. Simultaneous activation of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems helps us to achieve the "golden mean" between tension and relaxation in challenging situations and thus to get into the flow better.
In another experiment, Peifer and her colleagues showed that too many stress hormones actually hinder flow. They administered 20 milligrams of hydrocortisone to test subjects before a computer test. This leads to increased cortisol levels in the blood, which otherwise only occur during high stress, for example after a parachute jump. However, the study participants did not know whether they were actually receiving the hormone preparation or merely a placebo. Even this purely physical manipulation, unnoticed by the test subjects, changed the flow probability: it was lower with significantly increased cortisol levels than in the subjects from the placebo group.
What do we learn from this? A healthy level of physical activation is typical of flow. Both slightly elevated cortisol levels and sympathetic activity, as well as boosting the parasympathetic nervous system, seem to promote it. To stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, for example, a walk or light gymnastics are suitable; the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is best controlled through breathing. When under stress, it, therefore helps to breathe in and out deeply several times. Meditation or autogenic training also increases parasympathetic activity. If, on the other hand, it gets out of hand, for example after a hearty meal, we fall into a slump. So don't eat too much during work breaks, and go for a walk! And because the natural cortisol level is highest in the morning, about an hour after getting up, it is best to work on tasks at this time, where the flow should occur. In all this, one should not forget: Although flow promotes well-being and performance, it is still a state of heightened arousal. And so the following applies:
The dose makes the poison! Only those who take a break can benefit from flow in the long term.