Course excerpt from In the Zone: Finding Flow Through Positive Psychology
Flow is the term first used by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – now a recognized expert on the topic – to describe “highly-focused mental states” that are characterized by almost complete absorption in an activity that is inherently rewarding.
Flow happens when what we are doing so captivates us, almost enthralls us, that for a moment (and sometimes hours), our awareness and actions merge, and movements flow effortlessly without conscious thought, direction, or intervention. Our skills almost perfectly match the demands of the task, and we experience the challenge in front of us with the delighted exaltation that perfecting our strengths provides. As we do, self-consciousness quiets and we feel what can only be described as a “passive mind, and active body.” In this self-transcendent state, many describe feelings of euphoria, ecstasy, and elation. And while flow is often attributed to extreme athletes, the most creative minds, and exceptional performances, the experience is universal to us all – we are all wired toward self-actualization.
There are many reasons that flow has been called the most desirable state we can be in. While you already know that dopamine has a profound effect on our mood, immunity, ability to focus, impulse control, and motivation levels, and that the endorphins released during flow have a pain reducing effect, it shouldn’t be surprising that flow would also make us feel more grateful. But perhaps not for the reasons you might think.
To understand just how flow affects our feelings of gratitude, let’s first take a look at what gratitude is. In its most literal definition, gratitude is about the feeling of having enough. When we feel grateful, we feel not just as if we are enough, but also that we have something to give to others. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, makes us feel as though we are not enough. When we feel self-conscious we doubt our abilities and even more importantly, our worth to others. For that reason, self-consciousness dampens gratitude. But remember that one of the characteristics of flow is the absence of self-consciousness. When immersed in the state of flow, our critical inner voice is decidedly quiet, and as our awareness and actions merge (another characteristic of flow), self-doubt, fear, and worry ceases, and what we have left is a feeling of profound enjoyment, and profound gratitude. Not only do we realize new strengths, skills, and capacities, but what emerges is the best version of ourselves – all things to be grateful for.
But flow also seems to affect gratitude levels in another very profound way – it seems to counteract greed. Greed is the feeling of not having enough – in many ways the opposite of gratitude – and when we try to quench greed through material gains, we set ourselves up for more greed for a host of reasons. For one thing, we measure our material worth against that of others, and when we do this, we can always find someone who has more than us. Further, what we can gain materially is limited by our financial means, which, for most of us, is somewhat out of our control, leaving us with the dismaying feeling of wanting and not having. And material gains, while we often think will make us feel better, simply don’t. While we may get a temporary boost in happiness levels (and perhaps feelings of gratitude), it is short lived. As Gregg Easterbrook (2004) explains in, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, living beyond a comfortable level – which Easterbrook explains is just enough to survive comfortably – increased material worth doesn’t affect happiness levels at all.
On the other hand, when we try to counteract greed and cultivate gratitude through flow, we get the opposite outcome. The boost in happiness levels that comes with flow, unlike with material gains, endures indefinitely. And the rewards we receive in flow come in the internal form – we get to see a new, better version of ourselves unveiled before us – unlike material rewards which are external and therefore can be lost. Yet perhaps the most important difference between material wealth and flow is this: with material wealth we are limited by financial means, in flow we are only limited by the effort we put in. And effort, unlike financial means, is within our control. Therefore, if we want more flow (and more of the mood boost that it brings) we can simply choose to enact its three requirements: clear goals, immediate feedback, and a challenge that is just slightly higher than our skill level.
So how can you use flow to help your client employ gratitude? The answer is simple. The next time your client feels greed, suggest that she turn to flow. Instead of purchasing a new pair of shoes, appliance, toy, car, or anything, have her choose an activity that she enjoys and then set flow’s three conditions: clear goals, immediate feedback, and a challenge just slightly beyond her skill level. And because the benefits of flow increase as skills improve, the experience tends to be very compelling – meaning that the more time your client spends in flow, the more she will be drawn to it – realizing that its benefits endure over time. Most importantly, when you teach your client how to use flow to cultivate gratitude, you teach her a powerful way to cope with setbacks.
In the Zone: Finding Flow Through Positive Psychology is a 2-hour online continuing education (CE) course that offers a how-to guide on incorporating flow into everyday life. According to the CDC, four out of ten people have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Further, the APA reports that most people suffer from moderate to high levels of stress, and according to SAMSHA, adult prescription medication abuse (primarily to counteract attention deficit disorders) is one of the most concerning health problems today. And while clinicians now have a host of resources to mitigate distress and reduce symptomatology, the question remains: how do clinicians move clients beyond baseline levels of functioning to a state of fulfillment imbued with a satisfying life purpose? The answer may lie in a universal condition with unexpected benefits. This course will explore the concept of flow, also known as optimal performance, which is a condition we are all capable of, yet seldom cultivate. When in flow we experience a profound and dramatic shift in the way we experience ourselves, our capabilities, and the world around us. Our focus sharpens, our strengths are heightened, we feel an intense sense of euphoria and connection to the world around us, and we often realize capabilities we didn’t know were possible. For clients, flow doesn’t just help them become more capable, it dramatically improves their lives – teaching them not just to expect more from themselves, but how to cultivate the very conditions that make expecting more possible. This course, packed with exercises, tips, and tools, will demonstrate just how flow can be incorporated into your everyday life, and used to help your clients move from simply surviving to a life that harnesses and builds upon their own unique potential to thrive. Course 21-11 | 2016 | 30 pages | 15 posttest questions