Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Happiness and Flow

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 19, 2014

“In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.[8] The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.”

“In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi 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.”[9]

These are the words of Dr. Mihaly Csizszentmihaly, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University. I gravitate to his ideas, as opposed to Dr. Gilbert,, because as “the ego falls away” happiness can be felt. The full engagement in an activity, with the right challenge/skill balance enables a person to have that rare experience of living in the moment. This is the argument for “positive addictions” like exercise or computer games. The ability to fully immerse creates an energy and vitality, rarely experienced while one is planning for the future or anxious about life’s traumatic events. This vitality can then be leveraged for a greater “immune system,” to quote Dr. Gilbert, when stressful life events pop up. The positive addiction can serve as a means of coping, a means to remember and experience that one’s own brain, one’s own body, can give oneself pleasure and pride. This “addiction” creates the “flow” that Dr. Csizzentmihaly describes.

Lee, forty-one, the mother of Hugh, sixteen, is worried that Hugh is playing too many videogames. “Does he have friends?” I ask, trying to figure out if the videogames have narrowed his social interaction or expanded them. As we explore Hugh’s life, his friends, his academic performance, his other hobbies, it seems that Hugh is using videogames as a means of having fun, of enjoying the challenge and the thrill of a virtual space. Hugh, I might argue, is enjoying his imagination, which, in his case, is stimulated by the role-playing games. It is possible that Hugh is having the “flow” and so maybe, just maybe, the videogames are a positive part of his development.

They are helping him learn to love his brain, to live in the moment, and explore ideas that are exciting and innovative. Videogames, as play, as “flow” could, in fact, be the key to his success in life. The confidence created in trusting how his brain gets him to a higher level in a game, could be the forerunner to the confidence he needs to land the right job, and feel creative and satisfied. “Maybe you should buy him some more games, ” I say, emphasizing my point about the potential developmental enhancement of some videogames. Flow is my new word. It is a great way to conceptualize the value of immersion. Sometimes the world turns to a better place.

10 Responses to “Happiness and Flow”

  1. Sunflower said

    Interesting perspective on video games–I’d guess that most of us are so inured to the negative press, that we automatically think of them as anti-social behavior inducers, or at the very least, the fallback method of choice for lazy parenting.
    I, too, love the word “flow.” I’ve felt flow while distance running, playing music as part of an orchestra (well, actually, playing music anytime I was intensely involved, solo or as part of a group), certain professional projects that really challenged my ingenuity and concentration. Frankly, isn’t lovemaking all about flow?
    Nice blog post, as usual!

    • Thanks, Sunflower. Yes, lovemaking as flow makes sense, but I think Dr. C includes the aspect of skill and challenge, which I am not sure applies, but the idea of being in the moment is similar. Having said that lovemaking can be in the moment, or it can be associated with mind wanderings which would make it less about flow and more about arousal.

  2. Shelly said

    I definitely understand your point, however I do want to ask…a young person whose entire life seems virtual to the exclusion of all other social interaction: wouldn’t you also want to encourage other means of making friends and connections?

    • Yes. That is why I asked Lee if Hugh went out with his friends. Any activity, done to the exclusion of a balanced life, creates an issue for further inquiry, but the issue is the narrowness of life, and not the pull of the videogame. All of us struggle with self-regulation, and engaging games can exacerbate that struggle, but as we mature, we need to figure out how to become engrossed without losing our balance.Thanks.

  3. Jon said

    I agree that flow is both a wonderful concept and a great place to be. Experiencing flow, whether it be from intellectual pursuits (e.g. really being into the study of a particular field), non physical recreational pursuits (e.g. gaming, chess), physical recreational (e.g. running or – really being in the flow – swimming), or as Sunflower points out physical intendancy (e.g. lovemaking), is one of the great joys of life. We do spend much effort to achieve having been in the flow.

    All that said, isn’t the remembrance of flow happiness? If so, further contrasting the works of Csíkszentmihályi and Gilbert might be able to lead to a deeper, almost Hegelian, synthesis of understanding. I look forward more discussions of these points.

    • I am not sure if one remembers “flow”. It seems like a state, and like all memories, the memory is a revision of that state, and so remembering flow is very different from experiencing flow. Happiness is such a broad concept that happy thoughts does not mean happiness, as happiness seems to me, to be an overall assessment of one’s mental state and not a compartmentalized experience. Thanks.

  4. Ashana M said

    I have to disagree with the diagram. My own experience with flow is that it occurs when the level of challenge is very slight–not so non-existent as to be boring, but far from a high level of challenge. A high level of challenge requires too much attention and frustration-regulation for flow to develop. Basically, if I am in a state of flow, I am learning very, very little. It’s comfortable and pleasant, but not where I want to be if I want to grow as a person. People who are really outstanding at what they do–and then spend some time in a state of flow performing what they excel at–have gotten to that place through thousands of hours of tedious, boring, frustrating, very unpleasant practice.

    Video games are deliberately designed to create a state of flow. The levels in the game increase gradually so that they remain in line with your advancing skill level. The problem for Hugh will be in what he is not doing while playing games (and that will depend on the game to some extent): developing his social skills (some games are social), improving his linguistic abilities, learning how to consider the future and plan for it (games work on a short time-line), developing his problem-solving strategies (the problems in games are usually fairly repetitive), expanding his creativity, or managing his frustration. Depending on the amount of time he spends on games and the types of games he plays, he may have the confidence to pursue the future he wants, but none of the skills he needs to get there.

    • I would add on Ashana that videogames give people skills. Doctors use robots to perform surgeries and those physicians who grew up using controllers for videogames are more comfortable with the technology. As with most things, all activities should be done in moderation, and they can all be used for good, for evil or for both. Thanks.

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