Image Source / Alamy Stock Photo

What is Flow?

In July 2019, a young 19-year-old became the first person to free-climb the Shard in London. With no ropes to help him, George King took a mere 45 minutes to scale the 310-metre skyscraper. As a passionate climber since he was young with an aspiration to climb the Shard, he researched the building for several months to determine how to tackle it. After becoming a viral sensation, he told The Guardian: “Seeing how much our bodies and minds are really capable of doing when everything’s firing at once – the endorphins, the adrenaline, the serotonin – to optimise your survival, that feeling is truly profound.”

In positive psychology (the study of what makes life worth living), George’s deep level of concentration while climbing and intense feeling of accomplishment to achieve this act would be classed as Flow. Sometimes described as being ‘in the zone’, Flow is defined as a state of ‘optimal experience’ where a person is so immersed in performing an activity with an energised focus that they lose their sense of time and forget their own surroundings. In line with the growing popularity of mindfulness and wellbeing as a lifestyle trend, doing experiential activities that result in a state of Flow is emerging as a new way to seek personal fulfilment.

Multi-ethnic group of traditional archery athletes practicing
Aflo Co., Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

To achieve Flow, it’s important to take part in a challenge or task that isn’t too easy or too difficult. A task that is too easy results in boredom and difficult tasks can lead to demoralisation. Finding Flow requires certain conditions such as having a set of clear goals and a task that has immediate feedback so that you can adapt to changing demands and adjust your performance.  There also has to be a balance between how challenging you think the task is and your perceived skills. Previous studies have shown that Flow is associated with subjective well-being and a satisfaction with life. At work, it’s linked to productivity, motivation and company loyalty. In combination with being creative, it makes for a powerful life-enhancing tool as creativity has also been proven to decrease depression as well as boosting the immune system and decreasing the risk of cognitive impairment as you age.

This idea has been known for thousands of years with the same concepts appearing in some non-Western religions, for example, practising Aikido under Japanese Zen Buddhism and in some yogic practices. The term Flow was more formally coined by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi  in 1975. As a child in the Second World War he was put in an Italian prison. With little else to do, he discovered that playing chess was one of the few ways where he could put the war completely out of his mind. Later, in his academic research, he became curious about the artists, musicians and writers, who would just create with no desire for fame or fortune. These creatives would get so lost in their work that they would forget any outside influences while they were painting, making music or writing. It made Csíkszentmihályi realise that happiness came from within. He once said, “A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness.”

In recent years, we’ve realised the importance of having experiences over amassing material goods and we’re spending more of our income on experience-based activities than ever before. There’s also been a significant turn towards mindfulness as we try to escape information overload and the negative comparison trap that comes from following other people’s social media updates. Taking part in activities that offer personal challenges give us a chance to escape from the distractions of the outside world. Achieving Flow through these experiences also offers our inner selves a sense of achievement and personal fulfilment. In one media interview after climbing the Shard, George King said he wanted to “inspire people to chase their dreams…to find something unique if it’s music, art, craft, whatever it is, to pursue it with excellence and to have a dream.” Achieving Flow is a chance to re-appropriate your personal time and improve your mental wellbeing by setting your own boundaries and challenges. Luckily, it’s not essential to put yourself in a death-defying situation to achieve a state of Flow or pursue excellence.

Do you think Flow could be something your audience will resonate with? If you’re thinking about conveying Flow, check out our curated lightbox to get a headstart.

Sophie is a picture researcher by trade and when not looking for images she loves to make her own through her creative pursuit as a printmaker and artist.