Go with the Flow (State)

You know that feeling when you’re so immersed in an activity that you lose all sense of time? You just sat down to get started and suddenly three hours have gone by in what feels like five minutes. That sensation is called “flow state” and it’s surprisingly beneficial for your well-being.

The benefits of flow state

Beyond the base enjoyment of your chosen activity, flow state offers a number of benefits to your well-being:

Fulfillment. Flow state only happens when you’re doing something you enjoy, so you’ve already set yourself up for success by choosing an activity you like. The secret ingredient to flow state is intrinsic motivation – that inner drive to do something you’re passionate about. When you accomplish new, challenging steps in a process driven only by your desire to improve, you create feelings of fulfillment for yourself.

Long-term contentment. Finding and working on projects that bring you joy in the moment and allow you to fall into flow state creates a sense of lasting happiness. Flow state builds confidence in your chosen pursuit, creates a sense of intrinsic motivation, improves feelings of mastery and promotes total absorption in your activity. All of these things contribute to long-term positive well-being.

Increase in “feel-good” brain chemicals. Brainbiz in Australia published an article on the neuroscience of flow state and found that it had measurable positive changes on:

– dopamine – the feel-good chemical
– anandamide – the bliss molecule, with anti-anxiety properties
– noradrenalin – activates the body and alerts our senses 
– serotonin – mood stabilizer
– endorphins – generates euphoria

Find your flow

Despite the name – it sounds like it’s made for relaxation – flow state is actually a mental space where you’re appropriately challenged and engaged by your chosen activity.

According to this article on Headspace.com, “…flow state describes a feeling where, under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing.” Psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura popularized the concept after releasing a study in 2002 about positive psychology, and how flow state contributes to it.

Csikszentmihalyi said, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Flow state isn’t going to happen when you’re at your most leisurely – it’ll be when you’ve given yourself a challenge in an activity you enjoy, where distractions are minimal and you can fully focus on what’s in front of you. It can last anywhere from 30 minutes to multiple hours, especially when you’re fully engaged.

According to PsychCentral, people in Western cultures typically achieve flow state when they participate in pursuits that provide incremental challenges, definitive goals and instant feedback.

Try choosing something you already love to do and step up the difficulty level a notch. Maybe it’s pushing yourself in a specific exercise or working on a new painting technique – no matter what you choose, it needs to be something that you must work for and is ultimately achievable, based on your current skill level.