Pillar of Well-Being #2: Engagement (and Flow) Part INovember 8 , 2012

Since positive psychology’s founding almost 15 years ago, the field has been focused on the importance of positive emotions to a life well-lived.  In the last few years, Martin Seligman, one of positive psychology’s key leaders, has been expanding the focus beyond just positive emotions to the broader purpose of cultivating a comprehensive sense of well-being.  Well-being, in this definition, adds four significant elements,  including:  1) Finding engagement in what you do,  2) Creating positive relationships, 3) Having purpose and meaning in your life and 4) Accomplishing things that are important to you.   This week I’m going to be taking a deep dive into the idea of engagement.

Take a minute now to think of a time that you were totally in the zone.  Where you were fully immersed in an activity with such focus that minutes or hours passed without notice, where you were one with the experience and your every action, movement and thought flowed naturally.

This is engagement at its best, a state positive psychologists call “flow.”   It comes when your skills, interests and abilities are well matched to the challenge at hand.   It occurs most-often when you are doing activities that energize you, especially when you are fully using your skills, experience and knowledge or when you tap into one of your passions.  And this state is often combined with a sense of spontaneous joy or even rapture, while performing a task.   Being engaged in what you are doing — not 24/7 but for brief, frequent periods — can significantly contribute to an overall sense of personal well-being.

How to Increase Your Engagement  

You can’t force flow, but you can create opportunities for increased engagement that will increase your likelihood of experiencing a state of flow.  The key is to find activities that challenge you, and that are well-matched with your skills, experience and knowledge.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Put some challenge into your recreation.  Yes, we all need some rest and downtime.  Television and movies, a long hot bath, an hour to just sit and watch the sun change on the trees — these can all help you relax and reset.  But if you constantly default to these passive activities, you miss out on a lot of opportunities for engagement (and thus a sense of well-being).  Instead, check in with your Happiness List for active things you like to do or experiment with hobbies that play to your strengths and skills.  Find a tennis partner at a similar level, join a soccer team, take up gardening or cooking, find puzzles that match your skill level or a piece of music that is just at the challenging edge of your ability.
  • Use your strengths at work.  The hours you spend working are a GREAT opportunity for engagement and flow.  The key is to know your signature strengths, by which I mean the things you are good at AND that energize you when you do them (more on this in a couple months).  I recommend all my clients all take the StrengthsFinders 2.0 assessment (you need to buy the book to take the assessment).  Then volunteer for projects where you can use those strengths and notice when you are using them in your current work.

My experience

What’s “flow” like?  To help you picture it, here are two experiences where I’ve  experienced flow in my life.

Public speaking

I have experienced flow when I give a positive psychology talk (to a receptive audience, when I feel prepared — more on these caveats, or flow-killers, next week).  When I’m in flow, I no longer control the talk.  I effortlessly move from pre-planned points to interaction with the audience.  The talk just happens.  I find answers to questions come out with ready data and tailored to the inquirer or the company.  And an hour can easily fly by in what seems like minutes.


Here’s a peak flow experience I had while dancing at an outside festival a few years back (excerpted from a Facebook blog post):

“It’s at times like these that I am fully alive. I lose myself in the music, bouncing, jumping, spinning, arms circling — I can close my eyes and let the music move my body. And the DJs were still hitting it hard — the music building up to crescendo after crescendo — each one pumping me with more energy, more flow, more movement. I no longer had any feel for time as I lost myself in the movements of my body and the opening to the energy all around me. There wasn’t a me anymore, I felt completely connected with the music coming down, the aliveness from the century old oak trees and the positive vibes of the people around me.”   (And no, this sense of joy was not fueled by any external chemical supplements, I was just in flow).

Take Home Message

Experiencing engagement and flow can be powerful.  Look to create opportunities at your edge, challenge yourself in the things you enjoy doing and see what comes.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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