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Flow Psychology & Positive Education

More happiness

Studies have shown that those who spend more time in flow are happier overall. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that the happiness derived from flow is more under our control than the happiness we get from pleasure or relationships, since it doesn’t necessarily depend on external circumstances or other people.

More positive emotions

Studies also show that people in flow also tended to feel cheerful, strong, active, concentrated, creative, and satisfied. Self-esteem increases after a flow experience, and people who are in flow more often have higher self-esteem overall. 

Teenagers, who often struggle to find enough challenge in life, particularly benefit from flow. The more flow a teenager has, the more likely he is to be concentrated, have higher self-esteem, and see what he’s doing as important to future goals during a given moment of work or play. Overall, teenagers with more flow are more optimistic and spend more time with friends, creating cascading benefits.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow gives us enjoyment, not pleasure. We feel pleasure when we’re content, comfortable, and doing something familiar, like getting a massage or watching a movie. Enjoyment involves some novelty and requires energy to activate. But once we get started, we can gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

Better coping

Focus, one of the prerequisites of flow, is associated with better emotion regulation – a crucial skill when coping with negative emotions and memories. If we know how to tune out distractions at work and hunker down for a big task, we’ll be better at moving on and functioning in life despite a major setback.

The attitude we learn in flow can also be useful for dealing with stress. Flow makes us feel competent, ready to take on the challenges in front of us. It directs our focus outward, rather than inward on our worries, fears, and frustrations.

Better performance

Top executives report being five times more productive in flow, a McKinsey study found. According to another study by Harvard Business school, creative teams have more breakthroughs in an environment with clear goals and flexibility in how to reach them – precisely the environment that’s conducive to flow. And the day after a flow state, people also report being more creative.

All that makes sense when we look at the brain in flow, which is a more relaxed brain than usual. In flow, our brain waves shift from the beta waves of concentration to the alpha waves associated with rest and relaxation and the theta waves that occur during meditation. And theta waves are the gateway to creative genius, a prerequisite for those aha moments of insight. The fact that our inner critic is silenced during flow also helps our ideas glide effortlessly toward creativity, rather than being judged and discarded.

Flow also enhances learning because it releases dopamine. Dopamine not only gives us a sense of excitement but also helps us notice more patterns in the environment by heightening our attention and decreasing distractions. Once those patterns get stored in our memory during the recovery phase after flow, we’re able to recognize them in new contexts – whether it’s the surfer who just knows which wave to ride or the orchestra conductor who senses that someone needs an extra cue. When trained for flow, experienced snipers zero in on their targets faster, and novices learn to shoot in less time.


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