Flow Into Better Health

By Susie Williams, Senior News Contributing Editor


The effect of our emotions, for better or worse, play a significant role on our health. Making time for activities you enjoy is more than just a pleasant pastime; it is an investment in your mental and physical well being. These activities remove you from discomfort, allowing your subconscious to work on problems, resolve emotions,motivate you, ground you, and give you a sense of self.

Have you ever been so immersed in an activity that everything around you seems to disappear? Time ceases to be relevant and the only thing that seems to exist is what you’re working on. According to positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, what you are experiencing in that moment is known as flow. Csíkszentmihályi describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away [and] time flies.” This state of mind can help improve performance and lead to further learning and skill development.

There are a few components to achieve the state of flow. You should have a specific goal and plan in mind -- this gives you a sense of direction and structure. The activity must be something that has immediate feedback, allowing you to adjust your performance and maintain a flow state. Finally, you must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and your own perceived skills, i.e., you must have confidence in your ability to complete the task while still challenging yourself.

Now you know how to achieve a state of flow, but why do it? Researchers have found that flow can enhance performance in a wide range of activities, including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity. Because the act of achieving flow requires a certain master of a skill, the individual must continue to seek new challenges and information, leading to further skill development. Not only will you perform better when you’re in this state, you’ll be developing new skills and knowledge.

Although virtually any activity that includes the necessary components can bring on a state of flow, for many people, creative endeavors do so more powerfully. For me, music and art are the means that bring me to a state of flow. Everybody feels like they’re stuck in a rut sometimes. At one of the hardest points in my life, I used music and art to cope. The act of creating and becoming completely immersed in my creations, forgetting about everything else and only focusing on what was in front of me, became a new routine. Engaging in my art and music not only provides me with the benefits of flow, but also gives me a virtual time out when I’m overwhelmed or struggling. I emerge with greater optimism and a sense of control over myself, fortified and ready to face life head-on.

So how do you go about entering this nourishing state of being? The first step is finding an activity you already enjoy, have a bit of skill for and feel challenged -- but not overwhelmed by. Many of those who achieve flow do so through creative outlets such as art, music, writing and more. If the arts aren’t for you, don’t fear; you can enter a state of flow through exercise, reading, or learning a new skill or concept. As long as it’s something you enjoy doing and you’re able to continually challenge yourself while doing so, achieving flow is possible.

No one promised life would always be smooth sailing. Fortunately, we come equipped with the ability to make the rough waters a little easier to navigate. Investing time in things you enjoy to do is nourishing your mental, as well as physical, wellbeing.