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Happiness, Flow, and How to Be a Better Leader

One of the more interesting notions to come out of the field of positive psychology is the idea of “flow.” A term in workplace psychology, flow has been described as the “secret to happiness” and is far more important than money in driving motivation at work.

Flow is, in a nutshell, what some might describe as “clicking” or “hitting your stride” or “firing on all cylinders.” It’s likely you’ve experienced it – if not at work, then perhaps while playing a sport or involved in something creative.

To be a bit more scientific, psychologists define flow as that feeling you have when you are exhilarated, euphoric, and have a deep sense of enjoyment. It is an optimal or peak experience characterized by a positive mood, and requires feelings of learning, development, and mastery of your work. It happens when we are working on tasks that push us past our own comfort zone – on both challenge and skill requirements – and it requires a clear goal and immediate feedback on the task’s success or progress.

According to Claremont Graduate University Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people have flow when:

  1. They have clear, articulated goals
  2. They get immediate feedback
  3. They take on an achievable but challenging task
  4. They merge their awareness and their actions
  5. They become immersed and undistracted
  6. They have high levels of control and don’t worry about failure
  7. They step outside their own sense of self
  8. They encounter a feeling of timelessness
  9. The activity becomes an end unto itself.

Csikszentmihalyi has written several books on the subject, and gives an overview of the topic in the informative TED talk I linked earlier. In the workplace, Csikszentmihalyi has described a flow state as including “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing.”

This comes down to the interplay between challenge and skill. When both are higher than your average, you can obtain flow:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's model of flow as related to challenge and ability

Alert focus, Csikszentmihalyi says, coupled with mastery, is often the staging point for entering a state of flow. He describes five ways that we can cultivate our own flow:

  1. Set goals that have clear and immediate feedback
  2. Become immersed and focused on a particular activity
  3. Pay attention to what is happening in the moment
  4. Learn to enjoy immediate experience
  5. Proportion your skills to the challenge at hand

In his book "Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning," Csikszentmihalyi also offers advice to leaders on how to help employees and teams attain flow in their work. Success, he says, has traditionally come from a combination of “two very different prerequisites: a reasonable level of resources and the technology to use them, leading to a material surplus; and a defined set of goals that helped their citizens overcome the inevitable obstacles and tragedies inherent in living. If either of these conditions is absent, life devolves to a selfish scramble; if both are lacking, it becomes utterly hopeless.”

“We need a certain amount of stability in our lives,” adds Csikszentmihalyi. “But it is not enough simply to know that the sun is going to rise the next morning, and that the robins will return in the spring. We also have to feel that despite chaos and entropy, there is some order and permanence in our relationships and that our lives are not wasted, and will leave some trace in the sands of time. In short, we must have the conviction that our existence serves a useful purpose and has value.”

For us as HR and business leaders , this is a call to action to create a workplace in which flow can—well… flow! How? Based on the research above, try starting with the following:

  • Set clear, challenging and attainable goals for your workers and organization.
  • Create meaning and purpose in your workplace with a well understood mission and values that everyone in the company believes in.
  • Provide stability by creating a workplace designed for sustainability and by offering employees opportunities for development and growth.
  • Offer ongoing feedback and recognition to ensure employees have a sense of achievement and accomplishment.