Flow States and Well-being

The term flow, or being in a flow state, refers to a highly focused state of being that is accompanied by full absorption in the task at hand, with little to no awareness of extraneous physiological, psychological, or environmental inputs. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theorized that the flow state is associated with productivity and positive mood states resulting from a sustained, intensely executed state of effort.  Brain studies show the activity during the flow state is centered in the dopaminergic reward system involved in pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. The activated reward center enhances mood, hope, and optimism, and is associated with levels of happiness.

Activities that can activate a state of flow are individualized, often challenging but manageable, may be creative pursuits such as painting and writing, or physically taxing such as sport competition or fitness training. During physical exertion like running (or yoga), for example, a person folds into and is fully present with the rhythmic movement of their body and breathing, this creates a sense of peace while in motion, and is also referred to as “being in the zone.”

It is possible that the mood enhancing effects of flow in turn precipitate the pursuit of further activities or opportunities to be immersed in a flow state. Being in flow may be viewed as an emotional relief, a temporary vacation or escape from what burdens us, generating positive emotions and strength that then contribute to resilience and agency post flow state. Participating in activities that generate this state of well-being may be considered productive tools in our wellness tool belt, aimed at thriving not just surviving.