One of the founding fathers of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, focused his research on creativity and happiness. His research has shown that, regardless of context, culture, age, gender or education, when people feel a deep sense of enjoyment they describe the experience in very similar ways. What they feel in such moments is rather consistent. This common experience of feeling a deep sense of enjoyment has been given the name “Flow” because respondents often made the analogy to be moving effortlessly in a current of energy where action and awareness follow each other spontaneously and freely as being “carried by a river or a stream”.
Flow is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that the concrete level at which an individual can get into a Flow state depends very much on finding a good balance between his or her skill level and challenge(s) to be met. Getting into Flow is a complicated and dynamic process: if the level of challenges is too high, the person may find himself in Anxiety, Worry or Arousal, but not in Flow. If the individual’s skill level surpasses the challenges being faced, the person may enter Boredom, Relaxation, or even Control, but definitely not Flow. Thus, getting into Flow requires each person finding, at any given time, his or her own equilibrium between challenges and skills.
Flow benefits – What’s in it for you?
Csikszentmihalyi identified the Flow state, often referred to as the Zone, as the mental state of a person who is fully involved in a task, enjoying the activity, and feeling lots of energy. In his interpretation, being in a Flow state represents the ultimate experience in harnessing positive emotions, in line with the task at hand, exhibiting spontaneity, joy, and creativity.
The benefits of Flow in our private life are inevitable. Here are the Flow benefits in the working environment:
- Flow focuses your attention on what’s important and positive – When you’re in a Flow state, you shut down self-consciousness and negative mind-wandering. You focus on the task at hand and find it intrinsically rewarding. You’re not thinking about perceived inadequacies, all the things on your To-Do list, or how fast you can “just get over with this”.
- Flow can lead to improved performance – Researchers have found that one of the major benefits of Flow is that it can enhance human performance in every domain of human work and creativity. With Flow, you get better results, faster.
- Flow can accelerate learning and skill development – Because Flow happens when we master a skill, individuals who continually seek new challenges in order to find Flow, grow in their abilities and their confidence.
- Flow can double your productivity – Researches show that the average businessperson is in a Flow state for only 5 percent of the workday. If conditions were right to increase Flow experience to 15 percent, productivity would double.
- Flow teaches you to rise to challenges – Life is messy, difficult, and complicated. Nothing ever comes easy, and timing is rarely on your side. If you find yourself waiting for the perfect time or circumstances to deal with challenges, it will never come. Flow teaches us how to get comfortable conquering challenges both big and small. Life can be scary and difficult, but risk and reward go hand in hand. The reward can be finding your perfect state of Flow.
- Flow increases enjoyment and creativity – Flow doesn’t just heighten creativity at the moment. It actually trains us on how to be more open to discovery and innovation. During Flow, concentration is so intense it changes our brains. When we’re in Flow, we get the benefit of natural pleasure-inducing and performance-enhancing chemicals. During Flow, we are far less critical, better able to connect ideas, and more courageous in imagining new possibilities. Flow is different from pleasure, in that Flow powers our ability to discover new ways of thinking, being, and doing and to grow in the process. We enjoy Flow experience so much not because it is easy, or even comfortable—but because it allows us to accomplish something worthwhile.
- Flow is the ultimate eustress experience – Flow and stress are mutually exclusive states of being. Flow can be described as the ultimate eustress experience. Eustress, or positive cognitive response to stressors, helps us feel a sense of fulfillment, meaning, and hope. Eustress comes when we are fully present, focused on meeting a challenge, and feeling exhilarated. The experience almost exactly mirrors the definition of Flow. Flow is Peak Experience, the most challenging yet most joyous, happy, blissful moments of our lives.
Connecting Flow with management and leadership
As Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “our jobs determine to a large extent what our lives are like.” How we feel ourselves at work has a decisive impact on our lives – positively or negatively. If the work environment is rewarding – not only or mainly in the form of compensation – but in terms of making us feel good about what we are accomplishing and, at the same time, that we are helping our organization to achieve worthwhile goals, we are likely to be happy about it. Satisfaction and accomplishments at work will also contribute to our overall happiness as human beings. Just think of what happens when one comes home from work all stressed out as opposed to when one arrives home and tells a loved one, “today (or in the past week or month) I really accomplished things and my contributions were appreciated.”
The key statement that summarizes the Flow concept’s relevance to management and leadership is that the best way to manage people is to create an environment where employees enjoy their work and grow in the process of doing it.
While the extent to which we enjoy our work and are contributing to the organization is partly a function of the attitude we bring to our tasks, managers and leaders can do a great deal to create a more rewarding work environment, thereby increasing the chances that the employees will be highly (or at least more) satisfied.
High satisfaction – call it happiness – at work also brings substantial benefits to the organization because of such a workplace
- attracts the most able individuals and is likely to keep them longer
- obtains spontaneous e ort from most as they do their tasks
- promotes individual and team productivity
- leads to a more committed organizational citizenship behavior, and
- improves organizational performance, broadly defined.
In summary, we can conclude, that good management should pay attention to that the skills of individual employees are well-matched with the opportunities to apply them. Having such a match – ideally, at gradually higher levels – is a necessary but not sufficient condition of experiencing Flow. A job that employs only a fraction of one’s talents and skills is unlikely to be highly satisfactory in the long run. In such situations, opportunities for Flow as well as engagement are absent – or fewer and less intensive – than they could otherwise be. An effective leader tries to find out the special interests and skills of key members of her team.