Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane, and supported during the current crisis.

During challenging times, it can be difficult to prioritise the activities we love doing. There is always something else that needs our attention.

However, as psychologists, we know that letting go of those activities that facilitate recovery from stress and challenge undermines our resilience, and over the longer term can diminish our health and wellbeing. Consequently, our workshops and coaching pay particular attention to the importance of making time for hobbies, interests and connection in building our resilience capacity.

Research tells us that becoming involved in activities that we love doing, a phenomenon known as ‘flow’, or being ‘in the zone’, helps us focus our minds and can result in the experience of improved self-esteem, wellbeing and positive emotions.

What is flow?

Flow is the experience of being completely absorbed in an activity with a feeling of energized focus and enjoyment through the process.

The term Flow was coined in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist whose work on happiness and creativity has led to him being described as the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology. In an interview with Wired magazine he described flow as:

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.

Why is flow important for resilience?

Flow is such a useful concept in positive psychology, providing us with a greater understanding of how we grow psychologically, build psychological capital and develop resources to deal with future challenges.

Research comparing high and low flow teenagers showed significant differences in the development of their psychological capital. The high flow kids tended to engage in more hobbies, sports and homework, whilst the low flow kids were more likely to hang out at the shopping centre and watch tv, focusing more on pleasure than gratification.

The distinction between pleasure and gratification is an important one. Pleasure-seeking tends to be non-productive, aimed at consumption and the satisfaction of biological needs, whereas gratification is about growing through our pursuits and building resources for the future.

The research found that the high flow teenagers reported higher levels of psychological health and wellbeing, with higher self-esteem and stronger social relationships. They also had more motivation for schoolwork and ultimately turned out to be more successful than the low flow teenagers.

According to positive psychologist Martin Seligman low flow activities, or activities associated with the pursuit of pleasure rather than gratification, whilst highly motivating often require little effort or focus and do not draw on our strengths. As a consequence, low flow activities can lead to self-absorption, lowered self-esteem and the experience of negative emotions. Watching television for example, whilst easy to do, has been associated with the experience of mild depression.

High flow activities, on the other hand, require us to draw on our strengths and put in effort to provide a sense of gratification. This has been shown to buffer against depression, dispelling an over-focus on our inner world and enhancing feelings of mastery and accomplishment.

So, flow is important for our wellbeing and self-esteem. As we grow psychologically and emotionally through the challenges of engaging in high flow activities we naturally experience setbacks and failures. Navigating through these helps to build our self-efficacy, our ability to do what we set out to do and ultimately our confidence that we can manage challenges and set-backs in the future.

How can we get more flow?

The challenge we face if we want more flow in our lives is that the shortcuts to pleasure that are available to us are very appealing. For example, with the pressures and demands of modern life, it’s much easier to switch on a tv programme after work than it is to attend a dance class or do some gardening. When we are mentally or physically drained from work or home life, we might feel we don’t have time to get into hobbies and activities so we take the easy option, not realising that this is not helping us to be resilient.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman highlights the broad variety of activities that can provide a sense of flow. These may be mentally stimulating or challenging, such as studying, reading, or problem-solving; they may be social activities such as singing in a choir, running together, or community gardening; they may be physical challenges such as sport, dance, or meditation.

What flow activities have in common is the sense of gratification they provide. It is useful to consider the components of gratification here to help us think about which activities might help us achieve a state of flow:

  • Task is challenging and requires skill
  • Requires concentration
  • There are clear goals
  • We get immediate feedback
  • We experience deep effortless involvement
  • There is a sense of control
  • Our sense of self vanishes
  • Time stops

Although the state of flow has been associated with generating positive emotions, these are not normally experienced during the activity. Rather they emerge in retrospect as we look back on the activity, celebrate our successes or experience a sense of pride in what we have accomplished.

If you want to generate more flow in your life, try asking yourself:

  • When does time stop for me?
  • When do I find myself doing exactly what I want to do and never wanting it to end?

Consider what is stopping you from getting more of this. What gets in the way? Undoubtedly there are many deterrents to engaging in high flow activities: time constraints, fear of failure; the challenge of learning new skills that may take effort or self-discipline. These can all make it hard for us to get started.

It can be useful to think about how you can overcome such obstacles. Sometimes scheduling the activity helps. Letting others know so they can provide support, space, and encouragement.  Finding ways of taking the first step, perhaps working out what equipment you need, or preparing a workspace. If the activity involves others,  the first step might be to connect with people and make a plan together. And linking the activity to your values, thinking about how doing it will move you towards the life you want to live.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of our other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.