I love a great drummer and when I’m not studying happiness, I’m actually a drummer myself. I love to come home after a long day and get lost in the music that I play. The worries of my life are eclipsed by the intense enjoyment I feel as I power the rhythmic engine of a song.Watching great drummers, I can see that they’re just as absorbed.Take a look at the mesmerizing Carter Beauford, the drummer for Dave Matthews Band. Clearly, this man is extremely talented, but I see something more when I watch him. I see a musician completely engaged in the present moment. His focus and attention are piqued; he is flourishing in his own world of just him, the drums, and the music in his headphones.Like many other great musicians, artists, and athletes, Carter Beauford is experiencing flow.COLUMN: Find Flow In Your LifePerhaps you’ve had a flow experience, where you were so engrossed in your favorite hobby that you completely lost track of time. To be sure, engaging in a flow activity is a unique gateway to happiness because it transcends normal experiences of reality; our perception of time changes and we become capable of incredible feats. It allows us to turn off our inner critic for a moment so that we feel engaged and emotionally energized.And here is the great news: if you want to have a flow experience, you don’t have to be an amazing drummer or painter. Virtually everyone is capable of feeling flow.You may have heard the expression, “just go with the flow.” This is pretty good advice, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Flow is an experience that is engrossing and enjoyable. It’s something done for its own sake, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it. Flow activity is so demanding of one’s attention that none is left for anything not having to do with the activity at hand1.Flow is commonly associated with a huge variety of activities including music, sports, art or games. To give you an idea of what flow is like, here’s what a former poet laureate of the United States said about his writing:
You lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you are completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you are sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great . . . the idea is to be so, so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you are . . . making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it.
How do you know if you are experiencing flow? Here are several unique characteristics of flow activity that make it so special:
- It’s separate from the routine of everyday life. Flow experience feels fundamentally different from occasions where you are bored or distracted from the present moment. Instead, you are fully engaged and immersed in whatever you are doing.
- You feel in control, yet not in control. You’re aware of doing the activity, but also feel as if you are watching it happen on its own, without your involvement.
- It’s not too easy or too difficult. The challenge of the activity does not exceed your level of skill, and vice-versa. If you feel overwhelmed by the challenge of the experience or bored because it’s too easy, you will probably not experience flow. For this reason, watching TV is ordinarily not a flow activity because it has no challenge and requires no skill.
- It feels like you almost don’t exist. The activity becomes so engaging that you lose your sense of self. You don’t feel self-critical because you are temporarily gone. Only the activity remains.
So how can you make flow a part of your life?First, realize that flow is not just about creative or athletic activity; it can be almost anything that makes you feel truly engaged in the present moment. Here’s what a mother said about how she experiences flow:
It happens when I am working with my daughter, when she’s discovered something new. A new cookie recipe that she has accomplished, that she has made herself, an artistic work that she’s done and she is proud of. Her reading is something that she’s really into, and we read together. She reads to me and I read to her, and that’s a time when I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world. I am totally absorbed in what I am doing.
MORE: Find Flow in FitnessIn addition to creative and athletic activities, flow can be experienced with most other daily events, including family life, volunteer work, job tasks, and even cooking! As I mentioned above, you may already have something you like to do that carries you into a flow state. Try doing that activity more regularly or finding others that give you the same kind of experience. Ideally, get caught up in flow for at least 20 minutes each day.If you often feel bored, emotionally drained or disengaged from life, flow might be just the thing for you.It doesn’t matter what you do to experience flow as long as your daily life has moments of feeling engaged, cheerfully motivated, and attentive toward the present moment. Of course, life will not always feel this way, but you’ll be surprised at how a mere taste of flow can spice up your day. Just ask Carter Beauford—after he’s done playing the drums, of course. 1Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54, 821-827.