Going with the flow gets a bad rap. Often mistaken for herd mentality, complacency or the remit of Jimmy Buffet songs (‘Wasted away again in Margaritaville!’), its meaning rarely holds company with that of productivity. But flow is more than a laidback epithet. It’s the stealth samurai of satisfaction; the judo throw of good decisions; a secret attention weapon when distraction tries elbowing its way to the front of the queue.
Quick psychology 101: Hungarian psychologist and happiness pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe a state of total engagement and heightened awareness in the here and now, that moment of complete absorption in a challenging task that is well matched to your abilities. This can be anything from playing with your kid to playing the stock market, so long as your attention is present and accounted for. This is how flow’s résumé stacks up:
- Flow puts us in a good mood.
- Flow increases our psychological well-being.
- Flow adds meaning to our day-to-day existence.
- Flow is optimal experience.
- Flow is reward in itself.
- Flow is satisfaction.
- Flow is presence – with a cherry on top.
Sweet, eh? What’s even sweeter is how easily we can use flow to lay the groundwork for increasing personal satisfaction. The founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, believes that achieving personal satisfaction boils down to a very simple principle: playing to your strengths.
Not to be confused with talents (Mariah Carey’s glass-shattering range, Usain Bolt’s lightning speed), which you’re born with, strengths are psychological characteristics that (like flow) must be acquired and cultivated. Whereas talents are automatic, strengths are voluntary and are therefore a by-product of our conscious choices.
We choose to tell a woman exiting a public bathroom that her dress is tucked in her knickers (social intelligence); we choose to see the bright side of a fairly crappy situation (perspective); we choose to put on our pyjamas and study for an exam when everyone else is putting on their glad rags to go out (self-regulation).
According to Seligman’s strengths theory (you can read all about it in his book Authentic Happiness or click on the button below to take the VIA Character Strengths survey), each of us possesses 24 strengths (to a greater or lesser degree), which are divided into six overarching categories: wisdom and knowledge; courage; humanity; justice; temperance; and transcendence.
Each of these characteristics, it is said, can be utilised to improve our quality of life and that of others – but how?
Simple. Flow creates momentum, which has a knock-on effect in all areas of our existence. By shifting our perspective from ‘What am I getting out of this?’ to ‘What am I putting into this?’, we create the ideal circumstances for presence – that state of being totally immersed in the moment instead of whiling away the minutes. Start by increasing your satisfaction with minor details and you’ll be more likely to take the right turn when it comes to larger life goals.