Loneliness Runs “Like a Dark Thread”

Loneliness is a complex emotion – and although it’s likely that we have or will feel lonely at some point in life, our experiences of loneliness are personal to us. The post below is the second by Henny Syers, an experienced educator and positive psychology practitioner who is passionate about social change and the importance of human connection.  

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Loneliness can rear its ugly head for different reasons and at different stages of our life.  Hopefully for most of us, it is no more than a passing phase, a period to endure, a stage to ‘get through.’ Sadly however, for some, loneliness persists and it can result and exacerbate more serious mental and physical health issues. 

In his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” Dr Vivek Murthy talks of loneliness as running “like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brought to [his] attention like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression.”  He refers to it as a serious public health issue and one that warrants our attention, a view with which I passionately agree.

The challenge is that – depending on the current cause of one’s loneliness, its dominating symptoms, one’s age, and personality – different solutions may be needed.  What is right for one person is not necessarily the silver bullet for another.  That being said, I ended my previous post by stating that in my next entry I would suggest one practical and positive step that is applicable to us all.  It is a step that we can all take to fight loneliness and build a stronger and more connected society.  It is guaranteed to make a positive difference regardless of your age, nationality, personality or whatever other distinguishing factor you decide to focus on.  Whilst it will take some proactivity on the individual’s part, its reward will more than make up for the initial self-initiation required.

The Importance of Purpose

As I said in my previous post, my own experience of loneliness this year has largely been down to a lack of perceived purpose, something that I have not, like some of my friends and family members, been able to carve out for myself.  Over the lockdown period, I have marvelled at the way in which some people have heroically rolled up their sleeves and turned their hands to new projects and ‘rainy day’ jobs.  Books have been written, books have been read, shirts have been made, drawers and cupboards emptied, shelves built, summer houses constructed, new recipes tried, ponds dug…  The list goes on.  On the whole, it has been my more introverted friends who have coped better with lockdown and with the lack of human contact that they have been forced to endure.

My more extrovert friends, on the other hand, have found lockdown particularly difficult which is perhaps unsurprising.  People who enjoy being around others and who get their energy from socialising will have found this period extremely draining.  Not being able to recharge by connecting with others face-to-face has, for some of my friends and close family members, been immensely challenging and has left many of them feeling low and thoroughly unmotivated.

My intention here is not to draw attention to the so-called poor coping skills of extroverts nor to put introverts on a pedestal.  Neither is it to suggest that it has been all ‘plain sailing’ for introverts.  Far from it.  However, there does seem to be something that unites those who have better coped with this challenging period: the ability to find and maintain a sense of purpose in the absence of normal social contact. 

Trying to set myself goals over the year has proved helpful to a certain extent but I have really missed the therapeutic synergy that occurs when coming together with others to achieve a common goal.  Research shows that our brains reward us neurobiologically when we join with other people to accomplish something positive.  Whether this goal be working alongside teammates to win a football tournament, harmonising with others in a choir, or working with a company team to increase sales figures, it feels good to join forces with others who reflect your sense of self and what is important to you. 

The Three Emotional Regulation Systems

However, is having a sense of purpose by working towards either an independent or a shared goal sufficient, or is there more to the story?  Does the nature of the goal also have a part to play?  In a word, “Yes.”  The reason for this becomes increasingly clear when we examine our three emotional regulation systems:

  1. The Threat-Defence System
  2. The Drive-Resources Seeking System
  3. The Care-Giver Soothing System

We switch between these systems or ‘mindsets’ to manage our emotions, thoughts, motivations, and behaviours.  Let’s now look at each in turn.

1. The Threat-Defence System is activated when we perceive danger.  Its aim is to protect us from harm and to ensure our survival.  This system is very powerful and is frequently overly activated.  It is associated with feelings of high arousal negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, hate, and sadness.

2. The Drive-Resources Seeking System is all about pursuing goals and accomplishments.  It motivates and energises us to engage with the world so that we meet our perceived needs, values, desired achievements, and wants.  As you can imagine, this system is an advertiser’s dream! 

3. The third and final system, the Care-Giver Soothing System, is the one that our modern, individualistic, and fast-paced world so often overlooks and that is so often neglected.  Unlike the Threat and Drive Systems which activate us, the Soothing System is associated with peaceful states and experiences.  It is about giving/receiving affection and care from others, kindness, encouragement, support and affiliation.  In evolutionary terms, the Soothing System is our Mammalian Care-Giving System. We now know from the research that behaviours linked to this system can weaken the sometimes toxic effects of the Threat and Drive Systems.  It is within the activation of the Care-Giver Soothing System, one that is so often both misunderstood and underutilised, that a solution to loneliness lies.

Our Need to Care

We know from experience that helping others feels good.  A wealth of research furthermore demonstrates the benefits of a range of prosocial behaviours to our physical and mental health.   Investigations into the positive effects of loving-kindness (for example, Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008), show that it promotes elevated wellbeing, heightened feelings of social support, and increased positive emotions.  Acts of altruism have furthermore been found to promote an array of health benefits, including increased physical health and longevity, reduced mortality, and reduced depression and anxiety (Post, 2005).  Volunteering is also associated with higher wellbeing (Thoits and Hewitt, 2001).  Even neuroimaging studies have shown that giving money activates the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’ (Harbaugh et al., 2007).  According to De Waal, one of the leading world experts in the biology and nature of empathy, every human is destined to be humane; our propensity to connect and empathise with others is an innate human skill.  Given all of this, why then do we not all help as readily as we perhaps should if we want to feel good, and improve our physical and mental health?

Maac (Massively Accessible Actions for Change)

Evie Rosset and her colleague, Matthieu Fouché, believe that the answer to this question lies in the fact that people don’t as yet have sufficient opportunity to act prosocially.  In direct response to this challenge, Rosset, an experimental psychologist by training, and Fouché, a clinical psychologist, set up “Maac Lab”, an organisation designed to promote “maacs ” (Massively Accessible Actions for Change).  Maacs are individual prosocial projects via which participants are given the opportunity to help others in a manner that feels authentic, meaningful, and manageable to them.

The beauty of “Maac” lies in its personalised approach.  The Maac curriculum consists of exercises based on decades of research in positive psychology, altruistic motivation and behaviour change.  Via simple group activities, people are encouraged to consider their individual qualities, interests and strengths, as well as the world causes they feel passionate about, whether they be as large-scale as climate change or relating to more localised concerns such neighbourly relations or community littering.

It seems that whilst many of us may want to help, we struggle for both ideas, means, and opportunity.  Perhaps some of us feel we don’t have the time or the necessary experience.  According to a study conducted in partnership with Ticket for Change in which they sampled the views of 2,000 respondents representative of the French population, 94% of French people want to take action to help solve our major social challenges; however, only 7% of them take action.   Maac helps in that it opens the doors and allows people to see that helping others can not only be rewarding and fun, but surprisingly easy too. 

Maac is currently focused on Maac Work (designed for businesses), Maac Social (designed for organisations in the health and human services sector) and Maac Youth (designed for schools, after-school programs, and youth centres).  I strongly believe that the product it delivers is one that we all desperately crave and need: the opportunity to help others in a way that is easy, that matters to us, and that aligns with our interests and character strengths.

The Light in the Dark

Given my experiences over this year, I was not surprised to find out that a sense of purposelessness was a risk factor for depression, risk taking behaviours, somatic complaints, and poor social relationships (Damon, Menon & Bronk, 2003).  We need to feel that our actions matter; by contributing to the welfare of someone else, they are given added purpose and meaning.  Post (2005) furthermore suggests that the reasons prosocial behaviours such as altruism and kindness are so powerful are that they help to distract the individual from their personal problems.  Within Maac lies a solution to heal the trauma of loneliness and to fulfil a need we all have but that many of us, to our own detriment, have neglected.

To close I quote a summary of Horatio Clare’s “The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal,” a very fitting analogy of the time in which we currently find ourselves, a time of darkness, challenge and introspection. As the summary goes, Winter is a time of “Seasonal sadness; winter blues; depression – such feelings are widespread in the darker months.  But by looking outwards, by being in and observing nature, we can appreciate its rhythms.” 

Now is the time to re-evaluate, to look “outwards” and to capitalise on the shared vulnerability that we have all experienced via this awful pandemic.  “By learning to see, we can find the magic, the light that burns bright at the heart of winter”.  This light is our propensity and need to connect and care for one another, “…the light that burns bright at the heart of winter: spring will come again.”  It is now up to us to welcome it with an open heart and an open mind.

Strengths Based Parenting

Building up self-awareness, confidence and resilience is a key part of positive child development. One way to do this is to make children aware of their personal strengths and how they can regularly use them. A previous post about developing children’s strengths explores how you can foster this awareness in more detail.

As children become more comfortable using the language of strengths and are familiar with their personal strengths, there are a number of activities you could use to help them develop these further. In her book The Strength Switch Dr. Lea Waters offers some practical ideas to try at home. Three of my favourite are below:

1. A Better Question Than “How Was School Today?”

Rather than asking this and getting a grunt in return, why not share the strengths you’ve used during the day and give an example of one you saw in someone else? If you notice a pattern over time, this could help to identify your core strengths. As you talk about the strengths you used/saw you’ll also learn more about each others’ day.

2. Family Strengths Poster

Stick a piece of blank paper up on a wall at home and for the next week encourage family members to write on the poster when they see others showing strengths. This activity encourages both strengths mindfulness (being in the present moment to notice strengths in other people) and can also boost family relationships.

3. Write Your Child A Strengths Letter

For one week, every day note down the strengths you see in your child and examples of when they use them. Also reflect on ‘big’ moments in their life and the strengths they showed then. Use your notes to write a letter and give it to your child. This strength-based praise celebrates what they do well and can also encourage children to build strengths they’re not using enough of. It offers an opportunity for parents to catch their children doing good things, to praise, not criticise – and can improve the parent-child relationship. You never know, if it’s a success in your home, they may want to switch roles and write one to you!

Focusing on developing your children’s strengths from a young age can help them build positive self awareness, confidence and resilience. These are all attributes which contribute to a well rounded character and a child’s social and emotional intelligence as they develop through childhood.

This is highlighted in the video clip below from the VIA Institute on Character. Their website also offers numerous articles with practical tips for parents on how to identify and encourage the use of child and teen strengths.

Further Reading

Waters, L. (2017). The strength switch: How the new science of strength-based parenting can help your child and your teen to flourish. Penguin.

5 Ways To Connect With Nature

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) suggests five ways we can connect with nature to improve our well-being.

As well as these simple tips, they also offer access to a free, in depth ‘Thriving With Nature’ guide which explores links between our well-being and the outdoors and suggests practical activities to engage with.

Loneliness Matters

Loneliness is a complex emotion – and although it’s likely that we have or will feel lonely at some point in life, our experiences of loneliness are personal to us. The post below was written by Henny Syers, an experienced educator and positive psychology practitioner based in Bali. Like all of us, Henny has been challenged and faced numerous changes to ‘normal life’ over the last year. Passionate about social change and the importance of human connection – Henny kindly agreed to share her personal experience of loneliness, drawing attention to an issue which will resonate with many of us.

With so many songs dedicated to it, so many stories, films, poems and art works inspired by it, we know that loneliness is a subject that warrants our attention.  Loneliness matters and, for obvious reasons, has recently had increased attention drawn to it. 

My blog below considers how our decreased social contact with others, as well as the lack of certainty and control that we have recently faced has resulted in many of us feeling a form of loneliness. 

Lonely in Paradise

As it has for most, this year has been a challenging one for me.  Having always in the past been someone who embraced challenges, who moved from one goal to the next, and who always had a project on the go, this year threw me off kilter.  Plans suddenly had to change and I found myself without a clear roadmap to follow.  Whilst some might have found this liberating, I found it very unsettling.  Despite living in Bali which many would regard as paradise, and despite having a devoted husband, a loving family and a close group of friends, I have felt incredibly lonely at times this year.

What has perhaps made my loneliness even more pronounced is the guilt that has accompanied it.  When witnessing the abject poverty that has tragically hit so many Balinese as a result of this awful pandemic, it is easy to regard the so-called loneliness of a privileged “bule” (a white foreigner or expatriate) as somewhat selfish.  Furthermore, those of you currently in lockdown might ask how someone surrounded by sun, sand, sea, surf, scooters and smoothie bowls could possibly say that they are feeling blue!  And yet, as it has done with many this year, loneliness has crept up on me and made itself comfortable and it has been accompanied by some  unpleasant physical effects. 

Having previously slept like a baby, I have found myself often struggling to get to sleep, tossing and turning throughout the night or waking up early and not being able to settle down again.  I have felt increasingly anxious and ‘on edge’ and simply not as ‘upbeat’ or positive about life as I was previously. 

According to researchers in the field, these physical symptoms are not to be unexpected.  When we feel lonely, our bodies react physically.  Stress hormones are released, we experience cardiovascular stress, and there is inflammation throughout the body.  Our brains and bodies react with the same threat level as if we were still living in the tundra, alone and surrounded by wild animals or alien tribes.  The late Dr John Cacioppo, whose research on loneliness helped to transform social neuroscience, stated that feeling lonely is like a physical warning signal to satisfy our need for social connection, a “biological and social imperative rooted in thousands of years of human evolution.”

Our Basic Psychological Needs

According to Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory of human motivation and personality, humans have three basic psychological needs of which “relatedness” is one.  It refers to having a sense of attachment, belonging, and closeness towards others, as well as access to help and support if needed.  It is not difficult to see how many have recently found this need wanting.  Whilst Zoom, Skype and Facetime with colleagues and loved ones has been a lifesaver over this period, most of us are finding that these technical platforms are simply not sufficient for the long-term.

The other two needs outlined by Ryan and Deci’s theory are autonomy and competence:

– Autonomy is the idea that we need to perceive that we have choices and can self-determine the actions we take; we must feel in control of our destiny and be able to make our own decisions 

– Competence refers to feeling as though we have the skills needed to succeed and achieve our goals.  Recent circumstances have also seen these two needs suffer.  Factors beyond our control have sometimes left us feeling entirely rudderless (lacking perceived autonomy) and ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead (lacking perceived competence).

The fact is, not meeting any of our three basic psychological needs can result in feelings of loneliness, a destination to which there are clearly numerous routes. 

Loneliness and Purpose

Unlike Europe, Bali has not been in full ‘lockdown’ which has meant that I have been fortunate enough to still visit cafes, sports clubs, the beach, shopping centres etc.  I have not, therefore, suffered the social isolation that many of you will have done over the past year and believe me, my heart goes out to you.  Speaking to family and friends back in the UK, I have come to appreciate my physical freedom more and more, and realise how incredibly fortunate I am to still have access to the world outside my front door. 

Ultimately, the main reason for my own loneliness this year has been my perceived lack of purpose.  After eleven years of teaching, followed by a busy year studying for a Master’s, finding myself unemployed has given me first-hand experience of how debilitating and distressing it can be to not feel useful. 

As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  Helping others not only makes us feel increasingly competent but it increases our sense of self-worth.  By affecting others positively, our actions have added meaning and this makes us feel as though we matter. 

And let’s face it, mattering to others feels good.  Whilst I am not saying that being unemployed is the route to loneliness nor that being employed necessarily protects us from it, what I would maintain is that we all crave having a sense that we matter to others and that our actions count for something beyond ourselves.  More about this in my next blog.

Whilst the cause of my own loneliness has perhaps differed from many of you this year, it has potentially helped to illustrate that whilst loneliness does not have a single root cause, the results can be equally distressing despite the initial contributing factors.  As we move forward, we must make fighting loneliness a priority.  It is, as Dr Vivek Murthy states in his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”, “an urgent mission that we can and must tackle together.” 

In a future post, I would like to suggest one practical and positive step that we can all take to fight loneliness and build a stronger and more connected society.  Yes, the present is painful for many of us but we have a valuable opportunity to capitalise on our shared vulnerability and catalyse the process of connection.  The time is now because loneliness matters.

WoW! News

When I learnt about WoW! News, I was keen to share it with you. Providing young people with opportunities to access age appropriate and balanced news is so important – WoW! News offers a platform to engage children with current affairs in a more positive and solution focused manner. It’s an invaluable tool that has been a success with children, parents and educators. Founders Catherine and Alastair tell us more…

What is WoW! News

WoW! News is the first media venture to bring solutions journalism to the very youngest consumers of news, children as young as 7 or 8.

Using texts, pictures, podcasts and video, WoW! presents news about the problems the world faces, from the climate and pollution to conflict and social exclusion, but from the point of view of people looking for, and finding, solutions to them.

Providing free articles and podcasts online, in English and in French, since 2019, WoW! News launched a quarterly illustrated magazine in late 2020 and will soon launch a subscription smartphone app that combines solutions news with a shared experience for parents and children around exploration of major news topics.

Why did you start it?

We came to a realisation that the news offered a negative picture of the state of the world. Journalists see their role as highlighting problems that society needs to address. However, the technological and economic disruption of the media in the past 20 years has increased that negative bias (bad news scores more clicks) and, due to the pervasiveness of 24-hour news, increased its impact on news consumers. Among those impacts is a tendency for some people to turn away their attention altogether and for others to experience a sense of despair and impotence in the face of a perceived accumulation of problems. As a journalist, Alastair showed people the problems in the hope they would act to fix them. But he realised that if you only talk about the problems, you may undermine people’s energy and will to take action. It is vital, therefore, to show people that there is some hope of solving problems at the same time as they are discovering problems. Hope is essential for action.

This is the basis of solutions journalism, or constructive journalism, which has been taken up by a number of adult media.

Catherine’s realisation was that she had transformed from an avid news consumer, when she worked in financial markets, to someone who had turned away from news because it was getting her down. She was also interested in how children develop and realised that this kind of negative impact of the media was having a particular impact on children. Without adult filters to question the picture of the world they draw from the media, children were prone to have a particular gloomy outlook.

Speaking to children and parents in the preteen age group, we discovered many instances of children feeling worried or anxious about the future, notably about climate change but also political conflicts. At an age when they should be starting to explore the world around them, some children were fearful of what it holds – this despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence that the world is actually getting a lot better for most people [see the work of Hans Rosling, of Factfulness fame].

So we set about finding a way to show children that for all the problems of the world there are inspiring people seeking and finding solutions and that we can all, at whatever level, even at the youngest age, contribute to solutions.

False reality?

We don’t only report ‘good’ news. In fact, we report a lot about problems in the world, and generally the same problems that dominate the rest of the media. What we add to our reporting is news about solutions or potential solutions. We also take care to show that the glass can be half full. For example, in reporting on the Covid pandemic, we ran numerous reports not only efforts to find solutions to the problem but also on things that were positive about what was happening in the world. This shows that the world is a more nuanced place. For example, we highlighted the benefits for nature of lockdowns and how this gave us concrete grounds to hope that efforts to reduce pollution and carbon emissions would help the planet recover.

Gain from WoW!

Our prime goal is to inspire children to feel confident in their own abilities to change the world for the better. We believe that hopeful and confident children will both learn better and have a more accurate understanding of the world around them and that this next generation will contribute to making the world a better place.

Feedback

We have had almost universally positive feedback. Those who have expressed doubts that solutions journalism can foster ill-founded optimism have said that, on discovering WoW! News, they have understood the rigour of our approach. We hear regularly from children who express surprise and delight at the novelty of the solutions our subjects come up with. And we hear from teachers and parents that WoW! is providing a valuable antidote to what education and health professionals say is a mounting problem of anxiety about the world among preteens.

We have received support from a number of organisations. The startup incubators Ticket for Change, Créatis and, now, SEMIA, have all backed the project to succeed. We won a La French Tech grant from France’s public investment bank, a similar grant from France’s Grand-Est region and a prestigious award for media innovation from the French Culture Ministry.

Plans, ambitions

Our priority now is to launch the WoW! app, first in French in the coming months, and in English later in the year. Viable paid-for content is vital to put WoW! on a sustainable economic footing. We are also publishing further issues of the quarterly magazine and aim to further link our paper and digital offerings, using techniques such as QR codes and novel augmented reality tools. We have developed a standalone video product aimed at distribution on educational TV platforms. We also aim to work more closely with schools on packages designed to address teachers’ needs.

And finally, we have a dream to create a “Tribe of Young Changemakers”, involving our young readers and viewers in choosing what stories we cover for them and encouraging them to share their own ideas and solutions with each other. We already have partnerships with the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots movement, for young people taking action to help the planet, and with United Schools, a trilingual global network linking classes which undertake projects to change the world.

Our Brain

Developing children’s emotional intelligence and teaching them to recognise their emotions can help children to overcome stress, manage aggression and express their feelings. It has an impact on their overall well-being, behaviour and relationships with others. One way to do this is to help children understand and recognise the different parts of the brain and their functions.

Daniel Siegal is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

Siegal uses a simple visual tool when talking about the brain with children which is called ‘The Hand Model of the Brain’.  The video below explains this in detail, but to briefly sum it up, the closed fist in the hand model represents the regulated brain – when we are calm and make our most effective decisions – with the amygdala (thumb), prefrontal cortex (fingers) and brain stem (wrist) connected. When we are e.g. angry, fearful, anxious or upset– we ‘Flip Our Lids’, the fingers in the hand model raise and our prefrontal cortex and amygdala disconnect which makes it hard to make thoughtful, rational decisions. When our brains are overwhelmed like this, they need to use strategies to become calm, reflect and reconnect. The hand model is a useful tool when parents and educators want to help children identify different parts of the brain and explain how they impact our emotions and behaviour – as Siegal says, ‘name it to tame it’

A hand model of the brain – Dr Daniel Siegel

Further Reading

Dan Siegal Official Website

Siegal, D. & Bryson, T. (2012), The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind Robinson

Siegal, D. & Bryson, T. (2018), The Yes Brain Child Simon & Schuster

Flow

This is an excerpt from a blog post ‘Living in Flow: what is it and how to enter the flow state?’ written by Pr. Ilona Boniwell which originally appeared on her Positran consultancy website. Pr. Boniwell is an expert and leading figure in Positive Psychology.

Have you ever spent half an hour searching the internet which, as you find out afterwards, lasted three hours? Or opened a book shortly after breakfast and a little while later noticed that the room was getting darker?

Think of a moment in your life when you were so involved in what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to have disappeared. Your mind wasn’t wandering; you were totally focused and concentrated on that activity, to such an extent that you were not even aware of yourself.

Time disappeared too.

Only when you came out of the experience, did you realise how much time had actually passed (usually much more than you anticipated, although sometimes it could be less).

Most people can remember experiencing such a state. In fact, about 90% can easily recognise and associate it with one or more activities. Athletes call it:

‘being in the zone’, others a ‘heightened state of consciousness’.

PSYCHOLOGY AND FLOW

Psychologists call these fully absorbing experiences flow states, which were discovered and named by a world-famous psychologist with the most unpronounceable surname I have ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say cheeks-sent-me-high).

Csikszentmihalyi

His celebrated book Flow: The psychology of happiness (1992) is one of the best examples of a marriage between non-reductionist scientific and deep thinking, within the accessible self-help genre. It became an instant best-seller, making its way to the top self-help classics.

It is possible that if it wasn’t for the enormous popularity of flow and for Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi meeting accidentally in Hawaii and becoming friends, the positive psychology movement might have never happened.

MAKING FLOW HAPPEN: HOW TO ENTER THE FLOW STATE

The state of flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.

If challenges exceed skills, one can become anxious. If skills exceed challenges, we usually become bored (like bright kids at school). Neither of these two cases result in flow.

Csikszentmihalyi investigated the phenomenon of flow by interviewing thousands of people from many different walks of life – chess players, mountain climbers, tennis players, ballet dancers, surgeons, etc. He came to the conclusion that flow is a universal experience, which has several important characteristics:

  • Clarity of goals and immediate feedback on the progress. For example, in a competition you know what you’ve got to achieve and you know exactly how well you are doing, i.e. whether you are winning or losing.
  • Complete concentration on what one is doing at the present moment, with no room in one’s mind for any other information.
  • Actions and awareness are merged. A guitar player merges with the instrument and becomes the music that he plays. The activity becomes almost automatic, and the involvement seems almost effortless (though far from being so in reality).
  • Losing awareness of oneself or self-consciousness is also a common experience but, interestingly, after each flow experience the sense of self is strengthened and a person becomes more than he or she was before.
  • Sense of control over what one is doing, with no worries about failure.
  • Transformation of time. Usually, time passes much faster than expected. However, the reverse can also be true.
  • Activities are intrinsically rewarding. This means they have an end in themselves (you do something because you want to), with any other end goal often being just an excuse.

What is also interesting in flow is the almost total absence of emotions during the actual process. One seems to be almost beyond experiencing emotions, most likely because the awareness of self is not present.

One philosopher describes his own experience of flow:

‘A good discussion often brings a sense of flow. I am not aware of myself, the world around, or the passage of time. I get totally involved in the conversation. Everything goes smoothly. It is a challenging but not a rough ride. Yet, like with all truly fulfilling experiences, you know that you were in flow, not while you were there, but because of missing it after.’

Activities that lead to a flow experience are called autotelic (from Greek: auto=self, telos=goal), because they are intrinsically motivated and enjoyable and have an end in themselves, rather than in some other end product.

Many activities are conducive to flow: sports, dancing, involvement in creative arts and other hobbies, sex, socialising, studying, reading and, very often, working. In fact, most daily activities can lead to optimal experience (another name for flow), as long as the situation is sufficiently complex to activate the high challenge – high skill condition.

Activities in which flow is a rare occurrence include: housework, idling and resting. Also, in the vast majority of cultures, people don’t associate watching TV with optimal experience.

Although optimal experience is described in the same way across countries, some of the flow-conducive activities vary, because of the cultural and circumstantial differences. Thus Roma (Gypsy) people very often find flow in raising children or grandchildren, which is not a common pattern elsewhere. Leisure activities, which are frequently associated with optimal experience, are not associated with it in Iran.

People in traditional societies find flow in housework, even though it rarely happens in Europe. Whilst TV is generally counterproductive for flow, blind people quote media (including television ‘watching’) as their most flow-related activity. This is not surprising. TV is not designed for blind people, so ‘watching’ TV is for them associated with a challenge – having to build mental images of the characters in the absence of being able to see them.

Nepalese people, too, associate the media with optimal experience. Not having a TV at home makes watching it a rather rare (and possibly challenging) opportunity. These research findings mean it is not possible to say for certain which activities are definitely flow-related and which are not. What for one person is a piece of cake can be a challenge for another. The opportunities for optimal experience rely, therefore, on our subjective perception.

Saying that, frequent choice of activities that are non-conducive to flow remains a problem for the vast majority of the Western population. Remember, it is not just the balance between challenge and skills that is required for flow, both have to be stretched. In television watching, for example, the low skill matches the low challenge, which usually results in apathy.

At work, on the other hand, we have the high-skill, high-challenge situations more often than during leisure. Yet so often we would rather do something else than work. Given a choice between TV and work, why would we rather choose the former over the latter? Csikszentmihalyi explains this by distinguishing between enjoyment and pleasures.

Flow may be a state of ultimate enjoyment, but it requires effort and work, at least to begin with. The pleasures do not, they are passive. It’s far too easy to switch the TV on, and it is the effortlessness that ‘sells’ this mildly pleasurable activity to us.

In addition to autotelic activities, Csikszentmihalyi talks of autotelic personality – a person who ‘generally does things for their own sake rather than in order to achieve some later external goal’. These people develop skills that help them get into the flow state frequently, skills like curiosity, interest in life, persistence and low self-centredness.

To read about the potential dangers of flow and learn about other optimal experiences, visit the full post.

Quizzes

If you’re curious how you score on e.g. emotional intelligence, empathy, mindfulness, gratitude or levels of stress and anxiety, the Greater Good Science Center has free online quizzes on these topics and more. You can take them as a one off or set up an account, save your quiz scores and track your progress over time.