Flow States: What Are They and Why Are They So Essential To Our Wellbeing?
Do you ever have moments where you become totally engrossed in a task? Moments of complete immersion where time seems to stop and action and awareness swing naturally from one to another? Where past and future thinking fade to the back as the present moment and the task at hand becomes our sole purpose? These are flow states and that is what we are talking about today.
Flow states were first acknowledged by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and as I mentioned prior, is a term used to describe those states of total concentration when we are engaged in a task we are passionate about. Think of some areas of your life where you enter into a flow-like state. I can name several of mine from exercise to writing to reading, video making, and researching.
I have learned firsthand the power tapping into these mental states can offer and highly recommend anyone reading this to first identify their flow states and then begin immersing themselves regularly in those tasks. Let us look at why they are so important.
The Positive Effects On Mental Health
Through entering flow states and becoming emersed in a task, our minds now tentatively focused on the task at hand, stops wondering. No longer is our mind left to wonder over the million and one things it can turn into a negative. No longer are we thinking about that embarrassing moment from the past, that worry about the future, or why we are inadequate. We become totally present to our goal. Our ego falls away for a moment. No longer is our mind on a relentless pursuit of analyzing what this means or that in regards to our lives and our identity.
In these states, we get a break from our busy, everyday minds. In fact, we get a break from ourselves. The human brain is a beautiful construct but can equally become a Hell if left to unconsciously wonder — especially if you are prone to negative self-talk -.
Our brains are prone to negative biases that can weigh us down. Mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and OCD all involve some sort of compulsive thinking from future worry to negative self-talk to irrational fear. Flow states allow you to get a distance away from your thoughts while also being productive and benefiting yourself. Distance from your thoughts then brings with it greater perspective when returning to your normal state of being. Upon returning to your thoughts, you may see things with more clarity now you have had some needed space.
Anxiety and depression are fueled by negative thinking. The more you think over a specific story, the greater the intensity of that story will become. Flow states put a stop to that thinking and therefore decrease the hold those mental stories can have over you. As a result, researchers point to flow states as being linked to greater well-being and happiness.
These states bring with them the power of greater productivity. When I enter into flow states while writing, words seem to quite literally flow onto the page with little effort. Concepts seem to come more naturally, no less due to the absence of egoic mental chatter as Vivian Wagner Ph.D. talks about in Psychology Today.
“The mind allows itself to think, without the constraints and expectations of the external world”. -Vivian Wagner Ph.D.
This compares starkly to my productivity when I am unable to enter a flow state. In these moments, the words don’t quite sync up the way I’d like them too and I spend more time trying to force words onto a page — due to my preoccupied mind — than actually writing coherent sentences. Flow states allow for optimum productivity. Find the environment that best suits your flow and create it when wanting to produce quality work.
Their Relation To Purpose
Flow states tie nicely into our sense of purpose. One of the main reasons I pursue this work is because I find myself getting lost in it. I become totally engrossed whenever I research human behavior, write or create video content because I enjoy the task that much. Your sense of purpose should be derived from tasks that you enjoy and accessing flow states as part of your purpose not only helps you reach your goals but also positively benefits your mental health — as mentioned above -.
Steve Taylor talks about this in Psychology Today;
Related to this, purpose is closely linked to ‘flow’ — the state of intense absorption in which we forget our surroundings and ourselves. If you have a strong sense of purpose, you’re likely to experience flow more frequently. Steve Taylor Ph.D.
In my eyes, I want to be working in a field where I regularly access these flow states. I have worked jobs that I am unable to access flow in and during those times, resistance builds up and my mind is left to wonder over subjects that only drag me down. It is difficult to be fully present in careers that do not satisfy you. That is why finding a purpose you enjoy and can access flow states in is essential. After all, not only will you benefit mentally, but will excel in your chosen career because you actually enjoy it. Part of that enjoyment is getting lost in your work and accessing flow.
Their Resemblance To Meditation
Meditation is widely hailed for its positive benefits on the brain from quieting the mind, decreasing stress, increasing productivity, and an increasing sense of clarity -to name a few -. MRI studies have also shown literal changes in brain grey matter concentration in the amygdala of the emotional brain — decreasing fear responses — and in the prefrontal cortex — increasing executive functioning and better decision making -. Again, to name a few.
The flow states we experience carrying out real-time tasks do not differ from those experienced in meditation. After all, meditation is a time spent focused on the present moment and flow states are time spent focused on a particular task.
The popular meditation app Headspace has an entire page dedicated to flow states and their benefits.
I was oblivious to the phrase flow states a day ago but I am now glad I have a word to describe the mental states I experience whenever I engage in tasks I am passionate about. As I described above, I am eager to make these flow states a regular practice in my life as I have experienced first-hand their benefits in the past.
During a rough mental health patch with OCD back in 2019, I was fortunate to be working towards my final year research project at University. I spent hours of my day researching Neurology and in doing so was spending large periods of time in these “flow states” where I was not obsessing over my fears. Over-time, the distance from my thoughts began to provide me relief and I soon moved into recovery.
I highly recommend anyone struggling with their mental health to find a task or project they are passionate about and regularly enter these flow states to give yourself a rest from your mind and use your time productively to create something worthwhile.