Flow: a wellspring of engagement, productivity, wellness, and resilience

I was sad to hear about the recent passing of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He was gracious enough to make time to chat with me about his research on flow when I made a visit to Claremont, CA in the late 2000s. At the time I was working on a suite of cultural transformation initiatives at a major IT firm in Tokyo, and I had integrated flow into the design.

One program created space for employees to come together in action research communities to reflect, plan and experiment with mindsets and behaviors to create their own individualized formulae for productivity and wellness. Intentionally scheduling time for flow became a core theme of this initiative. We distributed an article called Quality Time suggesting that intentionally creating space for flow might protect us from an epidemic of what psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell referred to as ADT (Attention Deficit Trait), an environmentally-induced variation on ADHD that he was encountering with ever-increasing frequency among his patients.

We saw interesting parallels between the skill/challenge grid Csikszentmihalyi used to illustrate the flow zone and the stress/performance grid used to illustrate the Yerkes-Dodson law, differentiating dis-stress from eustress. Herbert Benson referred to the Yerkes-Dodson stress/performance grid in his own exploration of how intentionally moving back and forth between stressful focus and relaxing activity seems to trigger creative breakouts. We introduced Benson’s ideas on the relaxation response in combination with Csikszentmihalyi ‘s work on flow, encouraging participants to experiment with making time for flow and the relaxation response in their day-to-day lives so they could see how it impacted their productivity and sense of well-being.

We got many positive reports from participants. Moreover, the client went on to place #1 in the Great Place to Work survey for Japan and became a global pioneer in the field of workplace experience design. We feel confident saying we played a small role in triggering this transformation.

I asked Dr. Csikszentmihalyi if he was familiar with Benson’s work and suggested that they seemed to be describing different aspects of a common phenomenon. Introducing flow in combination with the relaxation response seemed to enhance performance, satisfaction, wellness and resilience. He told me he’d need to see more evidence. Still, he seemed happy to meet people working to give more people access to the experience of flow.

Research has indeed revealed that attention is a bit like a muscle that expands or atrophies depending on whether it is used or not. Our workplace experiments point to flow as a great way to build that muscle, enhancing both productivity and wellness.

Connectivity and urgency have increased in ways that make ADT an even bigger problem in 2021, so it may be even more important for us to intentionally trigger flow as part of our regular schedules.

Thank you Mike for helping us all discover the magical elixir of flow! I suspect that as research continues we’ll continue to discover additional benefits of flow. In a world that will continue to obstruct our access to deep engagement, intentionally making time for flow may be just the right medicine.

For more information on Benson’s research on the breakout principle and relaxation response see, Hard at work? Relax, you’ll get more done:).

© Dana Cogan, 2021, all rights reserved.

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