Flow Psychology: How To Maximize Your Happiness

The Importance of Free Time


In order to maximize your happiness I will firstly propose two simple statements to explore that most of us would likely agree on.

1. Our free-time, we would hope, is spent on the things that make us happy.

2. We spend our free-time on television, video-games, and surfing the internet.

Evidently, these activities do calm our consciousness after our needlessly draining work and family life. Certainly, they are pleasurable. After being told what to do at every hour of the day, sinking our hands into some Doritos and scrolling through YouTube is finally an activity that allows us to be the driver behind the wheel. However do they make us happy? Are our happiest moments spent binging Netflix? 


We all know what makes us happy…sort of. Specifically, when people look back to the moments where they’re happiest, they generally conjure up nostalgic memories of time spent with family and friends, deep immersion, and the overcoming of obstacles. Not only do we derive pleasure from these activities but, more significantly, most of us would assert that these golden moments are much more than simply pleasurable excursions. No, they’re enjoyable experiences.

Pleasure vs. Enjoyment

This distinction between pleasure and enjoyment is at the root of the work of flow psychology, “the science of the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and enjoyment”.

Pleasure, for one, involves little regard for what we genuinely want to do. Dangerously, it masks itself under the guise of liberation. Of course, giving into our genetic programming when we’re hungry or when we desire sex is, in a sense, ‘freeing’.

Nevertheless, one can equally make the case that giving in is to become a slave to your urges. “The only authority many people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces” writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent flow psychologist and author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (18).


Flow Psychology

Csikszentmihalyi, of course, does not endorse pure resignation from social control and the abstinent life of a monk. Instead, he notes that we should gradually liberate ourselves from external objectives and find goals for ourselves (19). Advertisers and corporations know perfectly well the biological reward-system that can be abused by well-placed burger-ads and the sexualization of certain products. We certainly wouldn’t argue that the man who succumbs, without question, to a fast-food commercial and buries his face in onion-rings is freer than the executor of self-control.

Now two questions emerge. Firstly, how can one find the right goals for themselves? And secondly, how can these goals be achieved? I will answer the former here and save the latter for a later article. To start, we should apply this distinction of what simply pleases us with what we truly enjoy. Csikszentmihalyi provides us with some strong criteria for the latter, naming those enjoyable activities as “flow experiences”.

The 7 Features of a Flow Activity

1. Challenging Activity Requiring Skill

Unlike watching television, the activity should push your abilities and feel effortful. How great does it feel to execute your well-honed talents perfectly! Maybe it’s learning a challenging piece on the piano or playing pick-up basketball with some well-skilled opponents. Note that this activity shouldn’t greatly exceed your skill-set nor make you feel like Beethoven playing Chopsticks. Thankfully this aspect can be easily measured by your level of boredom or frustration. Overall, one should seek out activities that are just out of reach of their capacities.

2. Merging Action and Awareness

Once completely absorbed in the activity, your actions may feel automatic. Your mind no longer wanders and each move feels seemingly effortless (hence the term flow). In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions…But in the flow there is no need to reflect because the action carries us forward as if by magic”. (54)

3. Clear goals and feedback

Of course, you should be able to tell if the choices that you’re making are the right ones. For instance, the hockey-player knows what to do overall; that is to win the game as well as the assortment of smaller challenges that lead up to this. She may have to pass the puck to her teammate successfully and will know if she performed this well quite immediately. Or she may have to prevent an opponent from scoring on a break-away and will rely on similar immediate feedback. Equally, the well-trained musician gets feedback at every chord and will have to re-adjust when something just doesn’t feel right. Hence, feedback implies that there is a chance for error and improvement. This is certainly a characteristic absent when one marathons Seinfeld over the weekend.

4. Concentration

Due to the challenge of the activity, you should feely fully immersed in it. In an almost monk-like trance, you lose any sense of self-consciousness. No longer are you preoccupied by the thoughts of what your hair looks like or what that guy or girl you have a crush on really thinks about you. Instead, every action is automatic. As one rock-rock-climber put it: “You are so involved in what you are doing (that) you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity…You don’t see yourself as separate from what you are doing” (53). Nothing can possibly interrupt your state of flow.

5. Paradox of Control

Flow experiences are generally seen as involving a sense of control. The dancer may, at work and in class, find herself susceptible to disorganization and chaos, pulled between the external demands of her teachers and bosses. Nevertheless, on the dance floor this fear of losing control is absent. She is the captain of her own actions. Of course, this encases a far more dangerous element: the addictiveness of flow. Many great artists, such as Picasso and John Lennon, have led tumultuous personal lives largely due to their total embrace and pursuit of control in their own work. If one allows their one, singular flow activity to be all they have in life, an absolute escape from uncertainty, then one may find their health, finances, and personal life entangled in distress and decay.

6. The Loss of Self-Consciousness

The loss of the sense of a self separate from the world around it is sometimes accompanied by a feeling of union with the environment” (63). As stated before, the concentration required for flow activities launches one into a state of automatic, unselfconscious operation. There is simply no room for self-scrutiny. We are vulnerable creatures and for most of the day our doubts and anxieties interrupt our ability to focus and enjoy the moment at hand. Hence, entering into this sort of state is not only refreshing, but also emerges as one of the few moments of lucidity we truly experience throughout our lives.

7. Transformation of Time

Finally, if you’ve ever played some sort of enjoyable game you may have realized that time speeds up significantly. Strangely, one may feel that the clock moved faster and yet, simultaneously, time has slowed down. The professional athlete may feel as if they were operating in slow-mo as they dodge and weave through opponents. However, they may also come out of the game asking themselves “How is it already 6 pm?” Similarly, think back to those heated discussions with friends and family, where everyone is queued in and intensely focused on coming to a common truth or defending their position. Likely, the clock may have seemingly sped-up throughout this conversation. Although this element of the flow may simply be a byproduct, rather than a contributor to the overall positive experience itself, it does help us in our search for our own flow activities.


Conclusion: Are You In?

If some hobbies or memories have emerged in your mind while you read this list, try to figure out the necessary steps that will allow you to implement them regularly in your life. Maybe it’s cooking, spending time with a certain someone, playing tennis, learning a language, or simply doing the dishes.

Whatever the case, note that these activities are valuable-in-themselves and don’t require some further explanation of why one needs to pursue them. You may work at your job for money. You may study to acquire a degree. But why do you pursue activities that require effort, focus, time, and sometimes money that are absent in providing you something other than a good challenge and a good time?

The best part about flow activities is that they never require a because to this question of why. Unlike many other things in life that require a great deal of sacrifice and a fair amount of assuming that the benefits will outweigh the costs eventually, flow activities give us that rare chance to explore and appreciate our moment-by-moment existence in concert with our mental and physical abilities, pushed to their limits. How you can implement this concept in your life will be elaborated on next.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Row, 2009.

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