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Why Does Experiencing 鈥楩low鈥 Feel So Good?

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Some people experience flow when running in a marathon or similar activity.
Some people experience flow when running in a marathon or similar activity. (Getty Images)

Reprinted from The Conversation.


Richard Huskey headshot
Richard Huskey

New years often come with new resolutions. Get back in shape. Read more. Make more time for friends and family. My list of resolutions might not look quite the same as yours, but each of our resolutions represents a plan for something new, or at least a little bit different. As you craft your 2022 resolutions, I hope that you will add one that is also on my list: feel more flow.

Psychologist Mih谩ly Cs铆kszentmih谩lyi鈥檚 started in the 1970s. He has called it the Flow is a state of 鈥渙ptimal experience鈥 that each of us can incorporate into our everyday lives. One characterized by immense joy that makes a life worth living.

In the years since, researchers have gained a vast store of knowledge about what it is like to be in flow and how experiencing it is important for our overall mental health and well-being. , we are completely absorbed in a highly rewarding activity 鈥 and not in our inner monologues 鈥 when we feel flow.

I am an , and I have been studying flow for the last 10 years. My investigates what is happening in our brains when people experience flow. Our goal is to better understand how the experience happens and to make it easier for people to feel flow and its benefits.

What it is like to be in flow?

People often say flow is like 鈥渂eing in the zone.鈥 Psychologists Jeanne Nakamura and Cs铆kszentmih谩lyi as something more. When people feel flow, they are in a state of intense concentration. Their thoughts are focused on an experience rather than on themselves. They lose a sense of time and feel as if there is a merging of their actions and their awareness. That they have control over the situation. That the experience is not physically or mentally taxing.

Most importantly, flow is what researchers call an autotelic experience. Autotelic derives from two Greek words: autos (self) and telos (end or goal). Autotelic experiences are things that are worth doing in and of themselves. Researchers sometimes call these intrinsically rewarding experiences. Flow experiences are intrinsically rewarding.

What causes flow?

Flow occurs when a task鈥檚 . In fact, both the task challenge and skill level have to be high. I often tell my students that they will not feel flow when they are doing the dishes. Most people are highly skilled dishwashers, and washing dishes is not a very challenging task.

So when do people experience flow? Cs铆kszentmih谩lyi鈥檚 focused on people doing tasks they enjoyed. He studied swimmers, music composers, chess players, dancers, mountain climbers and other athletes. He went on to study how people can find flow in more . I am an avid snowboarder, and I regularly feel flow on the mountain. Other people feel it by practicing yoga 鈥 not me, unfortunately! 鈥 by riding their bike, cooking or going for a run. So long as that task鈥檚 challenge is high, and so are your skills, you should be able to achieve flow.

Researchers also know that people can experience flow by using , like . In fact, that 鈥済ames are obvious flow activities, and play is the flow experience par excellence.鈥 are very familiar with the idea, and they think hard about how to .

Why is it good to feel flow?

Earlier I said that Cs铆kszentmih谩lyi called flow 鈥渢he secret to happiness.鈥 Why is that? For one thing, the experience can help people . This is because research shows that taking a break to do something fun can help enhance one鈥檚 .

So next time you are feeling like a for playing a video game, remind yourself that you are actually doing something that can help set you up for long-term success and well-being. Importantly, quality 鈥 and not necessarily quantity 鈥 matters. Research shows that spending a lot of time playing video games only has a on your overall well-being. Focus on finding games that help you feel flow, rather than on spending more time playing games.

A recent study also shows that flow helps people in the face of adversity. Part of this is because flow can help away from something stressful to something enjoyable. In fact, studies have shown that experiencing flow can help guard against .

Research also shows that people who experienced during the COVID-19 quarantine compared to people who had weaker experiences. This might be because feeling flow helped distract them from worrying.

What is your brain doing during flow?

Researchers have been studying flow for nearly 50 years, but only recently have they begun to decipher what is going on in the brain during flow. One of my colleagues, media neuroscientist Ren茅 Weber, that flow is associated with a specific brain-network configuration.

, studies show that the experience is associated with implicated in and . This may be one reason why flow feels so enjoyable and why people are so focused on tasks that make them feel flow. Research also shows that flow is associated with in brain structures implicated in self-focus. This may help explain why feeling flow can help distract people from worry.

, and I have developed a video game called to help us better study flow. In my own research, I have participants while having their brain scanned. My work has shown that flow is associated with a specific brain network configuration that has . This may help explain why we do not experience flow as being physically or mentally demanding. I have also shown that, instead of maintaining one stable network configuration, the brain actually during flow. This is important because helps people adapt to difficult tasks.

What more can the brain tell us?

Right now, researchers do not know how brain responses associated with flow contribute to well-being. With very , there is almost no research on how brain responses actually cause flow. Every neuroscience study I described earlier was correlational, not causal. Said differently, we can conclude that these brain responses are associated with flow. We cannot conclude that these brain responses cause flow.

the connection between flow and well-being has something to do with three things: suppressing brain activation in structures associated with thinking about ourselves, dampening activation in structures associated with negative thoughts, and increasing activation in reward-processing regions.

I鈥檇 argue that testing this hypothesis is vital. Medical professionals have started to use video games in to help treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Maybe one day a clinician will be able to help prescribe a Food and Drug Adminstration-approved video game to help bolster someone鈥檚 resilience or help them fight off depression.

That is probably several years into the future, . Right now, I hope that you will resolve to find more flow in your everyday life. You may find that this helps you achieve your other resolutions, too.

Richard Huskey is an assistant professor of communication and cognitive science at the University of California, Davis. Read the 澳门六合彩开奖结果走势图 news release on his research.

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