Sunday, October 24, 2010

Flow - how to help your clients lead a more absorbing and fulfilled life

It's sometimes argued, and with some validity, that psychology, especially positive psychology, ends up advocating interventions that are "just common sense". For example, one of the most frequently cited interventions is to count your blessings - hardly a new idea.  Proponents of positive psychology  like Martin Seligman have pointed out that there are in fact a number of  findings uncovered by Positive Psychology, some of which which are well described in this article

One of the concepts I find most intriguing that comes from Positive Psychology is that of Flow, as researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.   Flow is a state of optimal experience.
It’s being in the zone, it's  losing yourself in a task. I've written a more academic style post on the criteria for finding flow, so I won't repeat that here.

Here I want to consider just two ideas that may be helpful when working with coaching or even therapy clients.
The first makes use of the absorbing and enjoyable nature of flow activities. When you lose yourself on the ski slopes, or on the tennis court, or in a game of chess, a film, a conversation or a video game, you want to do the activity again. So if you can find flow in an activity, you will be more motivated to do that activity.  A key  -and perhaps under-used - life coaching exercise is to ask the client to  list their major life goals. The problem many people find though, is that, paradoxically, although the items they have just listed are at one level very important to them, they just don't feel motivated to do them - at least not now! For example, suppose you've written down "write a novel" or "get really fit" or "be a successful parent" as a life goal. Seeing it down can  just make people feel guilty that they aren't doing it already and not at all motivated to start doing the task.  One of the tricks here, as all life coaches know, is to break it big goals down  into smaller steps, make the goals SMART and so on. So you might aim not to write a novel (because that goal is too daunting) but to research the subject of your novel, and to do that  by next Sunday. That's better -but what if you still don't feel motivated to do it. Then your coach may suggest you visualize success. imagine seeing your book in Waterstones and imagine how proud and pleased you feel. Whilst this can sometimes be helpful in giving more motivation , I'd like to suggest  another approach.
 If you can find flow in everyday activities connected with your life goals, then you'll be motivated to do them and you'll take a step towards a life goal and find flow - two good things.
The trick here  is partly to match the criteria for finding flow - for example, make sure you set realistic but also challenging goals, aren't distracted and that you get feedback.  So the would-be novel-writer finds a quiet space to start their novel, having set the challenging but realistic goal of writing the first paragraph of the novel today.  The challenged parent takes their kids somewhere they are all likely to enjoy, plays an absorbing game with them, or puts on a video of the family holiday when the children were toddlers (these all work for me!).  For sure, not all life goals necessarily have the potential to produce flow - the anxiety may be just too high, or the tasks too mundane - but if you can combine the two its a great win-win.

However, by no means all flow activities are good ones. Recently, I've found myself spending far too much time playing chess on the internet. Flow theory helps me understand why. Chess is absorbing, you lose yourself in the game (even if you lose the game ...), there's feedback, there are specific goals ... it's no surprise I experience flow when I play chess. Yet I don't really want to spend that much time playing chess - my work and family are much more important and playing chess distracts me from my important life  The lesson I - and clients - may benefit from is that flow activities may be potentially addictive andso  one needs to be wary of over-engaging in them. To do this, you might need to take quite strong preventative measures e.g. asking other people to stop you doing these activities or  in my case taking the link to the chess game off my browser so it's that much harder for me to get started. Whilst chess might seem a relatively harmless addiction, I am sure that being in flow is part of the attraction of more damaging activities, for instance those concerned with alcohol and drugs. The useful insight here is that whilst flow may be part of the good life it certainly isn't the only thing that matters - and  that activities are addictive partly because they lead to flow.

These two points are really two sides of the same coin.  Flow is addictive, and if you experience it in activities that are part of your good life, then that's a double win - flow and your life goal. But if you attain it in neutral or even harmful activities, then whilst it's perfectly understandable that you keep doing that activity, it's something to be wary of.

1 comment:

Dr Penny Marsden-Booth said...

Well said Tim. I agree with you, right down to the chess. But, we do need the feeling(s)that being in the state of flow can bring - even if it is playing chess. The key is to find flow in something you enjoy doing - or more precisely, being - whatever that might be.

You are spot on about some therapists/practitioners and goal settings that are just too far away - they'll never be in the now and just don't see it.

Do you think we sometimes lose ourselves to escape?