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Positive HR Series: Flow--the psychology of optimal experience

This short article is part of a series of articles I am sharing to inform the readers on central concepts and principles of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of what goes right in life (Peterson, 2006), which is the science behind the Positive HR framework.

In positive psychology, flow (a.k.a. optimal experience) is the psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities (Peterson, 2006). In layman's terms, it's akin to being "in the zone." Think of athletes and artists who do their best performances and masterpieces when they are in a state of flow.

The concept of flow was first studied and coined in the 1960s by Professor Emeritus Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University (CGU), one of the founding fathers of the science of Positive Psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

According to Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009), there are several conditions necessary to experience flow. The first is, the perceived challenge of a task should be commensurate to the person's level of skills or expertise. That is, if a job is too challenging for the person's current level of skills, it results in anxiety and conversely, to boredom. Second, there must be clear proximal (short term) goals or task objectives and finally, provision of immediate or real-time feedback about the progress of the task.

When a person is in a state of flow, Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 2000) observed the following characteristics that a person may subjectively experience:

  • an intense concentration in the present moment in doing the activity at hand;

  • action and awareness merge (think of losing yourself in the process);

  • freedom from fear of failure (because success or failure becomes irrelevant);

  • distortion of time (think of time flying away fast); and,

  • experiencing the activity itself as intrinsically rewarding (autotelic). Think of an athlete who spends many hours of practice to master her moves for the love of her sports and not necessarily to win the gold).

So can flow theory be applied at work? Apparently yes. From a work perspective, several studies have associated flow with positive outcomes such as work satisfaction (Bryce & Haworth, 2002) and performance (Aubé, Brunelle, & Rousseau, 2014; Demerouti et al., 2014). If this is the case, how can we operationalize flow in and at work? The answer is to create the same conditions mentioned above as Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009) posited.

That is, to induce flow at work, match the challenge of the work to a person's innate or current level of skills and competence. Next is to provide clear short-term goals and objectives that stretch the capabilities of the person without hitting the breaking point. Lastly, give immediate or real-time feedback (i.e., not giving evaluation or grading) about the progress of the task or job. In recent years, this practice has come to be known as agile performance feedback (Kabigting, 2016).

Since work is an integral part of a person's identity and in most likelihood, we spend at least a third of our lives at work, it is imperative that we find flow in our work to truly maximize our full potentials. In organizations, human resource (HR) professionals are in a unique position to create a workplace that allows employees to experience flow, be at their best selves, and produce the best works of their lives.

"A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background."---Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Suggested readings:


Aubé, C., Brunelle, E., & Rousseau, V. (2014). Flow experience and team performance: The role of team goal commitment and information exchange. Motivation and Emotion, 38, 120-130. doi:10.1007/s11031-013-9365-2

Bryce, J., and Haworth, J. (2002). Well-being and flow in sample of male and female office workers. Leisure Studies, 23, 249-263. doi:10.1080/0261436021000030687

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (Originally published 1975)

Demerouti, E., Xanthopoulou, D., Tsaousis, I., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). Disentangling task and contextual performance. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 13, 59-69. doi:10.1027/1866-5888/a000104

Kabigting, J. (March 16, 2016). Performance Appraisals: Awakening the Force of Reason. Retrieved from人事考課-jun/ on July 30, 2019.

Nakamura, J., and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). The experience of flow: Theory and research. In S.J. Lopez, L.M. Edwards, & S.C. Marques (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M.E.P., and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

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