Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Mindfulness and flow

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Mindfulness and flow:
What is the relationship between mindfulness and flow?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter explores the relationship between mindfulness and flow. It will focus on psychological strategies to achieve mindfulness and flow and also consider the benefits of both individually. It will also focus on the work of Csikszentmihalyi, who has dedicated his life to the research of flow. His research has allowed us to understand more about flow and how to achieve it, as well as when it can be a positive experience and when it can be negative.

This chapter will also focus on how the relationship of mindfulness and flow integrates with work, sport and life. There are numerous studies and readings that are done on the relationship between these two concepts and how they can benefit many aspects of life and health. An alternate look at mindfulness and flow is the ability of these two to be experienced at the same time and whether it is an achievable goal. This will be discussed later in the chapter.

What is Mindfulness?[edit | edit source]

Mindfulness is being fully attentive at the task at hand and being in the present moment (Bishop, et al., 2006)[1]. During everyday situations people can practice mindfulness and bring themselves back from alternate thoughts and other distractions. Mindfulness can help people check and balance their emotions for a healthy mind. Mindfulness is even being used to treat depression and cancer patients[provide reference here].

Figure 1. (add caption here)

When someone is not being mindful, they are on autopilot. During their daily routine, people often turn on autopilot to perform everyday tasks, although it is not being mindful to do this, it is still perfectly normal.

Examples of not being mindful include:

  • Eating while watching television and not realising how much you are eating
  • Driving somewhere often travelled (such as work or school) and not remembering the drive there
  • Being caught up in something that has already happened or has not yet happened instead of focusing on the present

Benefits of Mindfulness[edit | edit source]

Through multiple studies Mindfulness has proven to have many benefits including (Ackerman, 2017)[2]:

  • Stress reduction
  • Increased tolerance to illnesses
  • Improved recovery from chronic or potential terminal illness and life threatening events
  • Increased mental health such as the improvement and management of depression
  • Increased general health including physical and mental along and an improvement of healthier life choices

Exercises to practice Mindfulness [3][edit | edit source]

Walking Meditation Walking meditation is done by taking a break from daily life and focusing on the sensations that occur while walking. Focusing on breathing, sensations of movement and the nature around are ways to make this a mindful exercise. Keeping attention in the moment is crucial, this can be done by bringing the mind back to the present moment when it wanders away.
Eating Meditation This is also about focusing on the sensations through the activity. From the first bite, focusing on the texture, smell and taste of the food will turn eating into a mindful exercise.
A Mindful Break When at work or studying it is important to take a small break to bring the self back to the present moment. This will break the flow state but increase productivity and decrease the damage that can be done from sitting too long.
Taking a Break in Nature Nature can provide many sensations to focus on. The feel, taste, smell, and sound of nature are all ways people practice mindfulness. As well as becoming mindful, the sight of green in nature and blue in water can provide positive effects to the mood. It has been show that long term exposure to blue, green and nature can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms (Gascon et al., 2018)[4].
Breathing Meditation Focusing on each breath to bring oneself back to the present moment is the easiest way to practice mindfulness.
Mindful Listening Focusing on the sounds around and not letting the mind wonder creates a mindful atmosphere, no matter where a person is, they can practice mindful listening. Putting on some music and concentrating on the different beats and rhythms or listening to the birds outside or the cars driving by are all ways to practice mindful listening
Mindful habits Some daily/weekly habits such as brushing hair and teeth, cleaning the house, taking a bath or shower or other chores can allow the mind to focus on one thing and ignore the troubles and stressors that may be occurring in the back of the head.
Movement meditation Some activities such as yoga or tai chi are designed with meditation as a goal. These movements are meant to focus the mind and improve mindfulness. The movement through the body is also very healthy physically as it improves circulation and increases bone and muscle strength.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy[edit | edit source]

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a well established therapy in the prevention of depression and has been studied as a tool to reduce the negative symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatments (Bartley, 2011)[5]. The negative emotions that accompany cancer/cancer treatments such as pain, discomfort, anger, loss and fear provides MBCT with a good opportunity of reducing these effects. MBCT is still being revised in treatment with cancer but shows hope in providing patients with a healthy mindset aiding in recovery as well as reducing day to day stress and anxiety that is common in cancer patients[reference?].

Poem from MBCT patient

I Just Want to Live ‘I just want to live …’, I said

when told I had cancer.

‘I’ll do anything …’ I poisoned my body with chemo.

I disfigured it with two operations.

I burnt my body with radiotherapy

All because

I just wanted to live.

‘I just want to live …’

‘Yes, yes’, she said, ‘but why not try a different way?

Why not try living with





Because now I don’t just want to live,

I want to live with meaning and with feeling.

So thank you for starting this journey with me,

And whatever happens in future,

May we all go in peace Because at the end of the day,

We all want to live. Helen (July, 2009)

- Bartley, 2011

What is Flow?[edit | edit source]

The concept of flow was first popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi. In his book 'Flow, the Psychology of Happiness'[6]Csikszentmihlyi (1992) describes flow as an aspect of happiness that cannot be searched for. Flow is a great motivational tool as it helps people reach their goals with ease and enables them to spend far longer than otherwise able to on the activity.

"Flow - the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it" (Csikzentmihalyi, 1992).

The Nine component states of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999)[edit | edit source]

1 Challenge - Skill balance The right balance of skill and challenge is needed for flow. If a task is too easy there is no challenge and the person will become distracted. If the person is not skilled enough for a task then it will be too difficult to enter the flow state
2 Merging of action and awareness Automatic and spontaneous behaviour involving little awareness
3 Clarity of goals The goal is well defined
4 Unambiguous feedback The progress towards the goal is clear with available feedback
5 Concentration on the task at hand There is a high tolerance from distractions while completing the task
6 Paradox of control The feeling of control is there but there is no attempt at being in control
7 Loss of self-consciousness Awareness disappears and the only thing on the persons[grammar?] mind is the activity in hand
8 Transformation of time Loss of time awareness
9 Autotelic experience The activity is enjoyable enough to be intrinsically motivating
Figure 2.

Also known as 'being in the zone', flow is something that occurs across cultures (Csikzentmihalyi, 1992)[6]. Flow is being studied worldwide, especially in relation to happiness, life satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. This state is so sought upon that when someone finds it, they will often repeat the activity that brought it on in hopes of achieving flow again. This gives people a motivation to attempt challenges and develop and use skills. One of the methods people use to achieve flow is yoga and martial arts. The use of breath work in both of these activities help to achieve that special state. Generally, during these activities one can attain both flow and mindfulness as they are only focusing on the task at hand.

Being in the zone is a good way to describe flow as it conjures up an image of balance between two states of mind which is what flow is (Csikzentmihalyi, 1992)[6]. Flow is achieved when the activity is challenging enough to decrease boredom and there is enough skill, resilience or ability for the activity to not be anxiety provoking. To find flow, the right level of challenge is needed. People experience flow during a variety of different tasks, such as; work, reading, sports, social interactions and other experiences.

Flow is connected to motivation through the autotelic experience, mentioned as number nine in the components of flow. With an increase in intrinsic motivation, a person is more likely to be absorbed in a state of flow during an activity. Mills & Fillagar (2008) found that there is a significant relation between intrinsic motivation and flow (but no significant relation between extrinsic motivation and flow). An understanding of flow has the potential to increase engagement and motivation in people, showing it is a meaningful positive psychological tool to be used to increase productivity within work and study as well as other aspects of life. Using the nine components of flow, employers, teachers and coaches can develop their tasks based of the components to encourage a flow state and give their employees, students and athletes an upper hand in achieving their goals as well as giving them increased satisfaction in their work.

While flow is generally a positive mindset it can sometimes lead to unbalanced behaviour (Niemiec, 2013)[7]. A person who is in the zone can ignore basic human needs to achieve the goal at hand, such as sleep, food, water, movement as well as effecting personal relationships. When this occurs this can outweigh the positive effects of flow. To live a healthy life and to enjoy a healthy mental state a balance needs to occur where being in the zone does not conflict with these human needs.

Benefits of Flow[edit | edit source]

Flow is not always positive for someone's life but there are positive effects that people can have when they reach this state when paired with positive flow activities.[8]

  • Improved coping/tolerance
  • Improved performance
  • improved happiness and positive emotions
  • Improved life satisfaction

The Relationship between Mindfulness and Flow[edit | edit source]

Sometimes Mindfulness is needed to keep flow in check. Flow does not always lead to healthy behaviour and mindfulness is needed to bring someone back into the present state. An example of this is when working on a computer and in a state of flow, someone may be damaging their eyes not looking away from the screen, poor posture sitting in the chair and may even miss meals (Niemiec, 2013)[7]. During these situations people lose track of time and mindfulness can be used to break flow and help achieve optimal productivity and health. Mindfulness and flow are two important states of mind for a healthy mindset. They are beneficial to all aspects of life and can be a useful tool in productivity.

Work and Study[edit | edit source]

  • Increase productivity
  • Decrease damage done from sitting too long (Niemiec, 2013)[7]
  • Decrease eye damage from staring at a screen too long (Niemiec, 2013)[7]
  • Help increase work/life balance

Flow states are a useful tool during work and study. It can allow a person to work for extended periods of time and accomplish achievable. While in the flow state being self aware at the same time allows someone to gain the benefits listed above. Being active in a flow state too long can be negative to a person's health and being aware of these affects (being mindful) allows someone to gain all the benefits of flow without the negatives that can accompany. Another positive of this combination in work and study is achieving a healthy work/life balance by understanding and being aware when a break from work is needed to re-energise.

Sport[edit | edit source]

  • Mindfulness can enhance flow and performance (Cathcart, McGregor, & Groundwater, 2014)[9]
  • Reduce sport anxiety (Pineua, et al., 2014)[10]
  • Improve confidence (Pineua, et al., 2014) [11]

Using the five factor construct of mindfulness: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging of inner experience, and non-reactivity to inner experience (Baer, 2008)[12] to measure athletes, it was shown that those in individual and pacing sports used mindfulness and flow more than those in team-based sports (Cathcart, McGregor, & Groundwater, 2014)[9]. With flow allowing athletes to continue their sports for extended periods of times, mindful practices can be used to increase different skill-sets in different sports. For instance, in combat sports, being mindful of what stance an athlete is in and where their hands are can be the difference between blocking that blow or executing a well manoeuvred kick or punch. Coaches are able to implement different strategies to increase the positive relationships between mindfulness and flow and this can be used to improve athlete performances and skills.

Life[edit | edit source]

  • Increase quality social interactions and engagement (Reid, 2011) [13]
  • Increase quality of relationships
  • Increase mental health and hygiene (Briegal-jones, et al., 2013) [14]

Flow and mindfulness can improve quality of life in numerous ways. A scenario in which troubled youth start up running with a goal under the guidance of an occupational therapist allows the youth to forget about the problems they are going through (Reid, 2011)[13]. The youth are experiencing flow when running as it is a challenging activity with a goal in sight. They are experiencing mindfulness as they are focusing on the sensations that are present to them while running, such as their bodies, the environment and the other runners. This gives the youth group a positive outlet through running, while practicing mindsets of both flow and mindfulness. This gives the benefits of increased quality of social interactions while running together which continues through to their personal lives. Being mindful increases self-awareness which in turn increases relationships which thrive when both parties are self-aware.

Case study

Sarah is working through a recent trauma with her occupational therapist. While talking with her therapist Sarah mentions that she had always wanted to try pottery. Sarah's therapist encourages her to start up pottery as a new hobby and while doing so practice mindfulness. Sarah starts pottery and while doing so focuses on the sensations of the clay in her hands, putting her into a mindful headspace. The pottery also proves challenging and she loses track of time during her sessions as she enters a state of flow. During Sarah's following appointments with her therapist, she discusses how the pottery helped her mental state. The act of being mindful and flow together allowed her to feel purposeful and forget about what is troubling her. This has allowed her to open up more in therapy and engage more in her day to day activities and relationships.

Can Mindfulness and Flow be easily experienced at the same time?[edit | edit source]

The other side of the relationship between mindfulness and flow absorption is whether they can be experienced at the same time. Mindfulness being the focus on self-awareness, and flow being the loss of self-awareness in an activity raises the question on the ability of experiencing both at the same time. A study involving 44 introductory psychology students showed that flow is negatively associated with awareness (Sheldon, 2014)[15]. This study found that boosting ones ability to be mindful diminishes their ability to experience flow. This is because being mindful during a task undermines the ability to be absorbed in a flow state. This does not mean that they do not work well together. It can be rare to have mindfulness and flow occur at the same time but they can occur in rapid succession, meaning during the same task one can be deep in a flow state and then use mindfulness to gain the benefits the combination of mindfulness and flow.

Quiz questions[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 What is not a direct benefit of mindfulness?

Increased tolerance to illnesses
Increased flexibility
Decreased stress
Increased mental health
Increased general health

2 What can be a negative consequence of flow?

When flow improves performance
When flow halts productivity
When flow gets in the way of balance
When flow increases motivation

3 What style of sport is used most with mindfulness and flow?

Individual sport
Pacing sport
Team sport
Both individual and pacing sports
Both Team and pacing sports

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Engaging in mindful behaviour and flow states has many benefits in life. It can improve work life, relationships and physical and mental health. It is important to recognise the distinct difference between mindful and a flow state of mind as one is awareness of self presence, and the other is awareness of activity with the absence of being in the present moment. Mindfulness is important in calming the mind and can help reduce the symptoms of some mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Flow can be used as a useful tool for productivity and motivation, the state of flow allows people to complete or continue a task for an extended period of time, often with feelings of satisfaction and success. The partnership of the two (mindfulness and flow) allows the use of a flow state without the negatives that can follow flow. Practicing mindfulness during a flow state allows the body and mind to think about what it needs at that time and increase awareness which flow often inhibits. The use of mindfulness and flow together have been show to improve many aspects of life, including; work, study, sport, relationships and mental health.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ackerman, C. (2017). The 23 Amazing Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Body and Brain. Positive Psychology Program.

Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Lykins, E., Krietemeyer, J., Sauer, S., Walsh, E., Duggan, D., & Williams, J. M. (2008). Construct validity of the five facet mindfulness questionnaire in meditating and non meditating samples. Epub, 15(3). 329-342.

Bartley, T. 2011. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Cancer. Wiley - Blackwell.

Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., Segal, Z. V., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D., Devins, D. (2006).Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11 (3): 230–241

Briegel-Jones, M. H., Knowles, Z., Eubank, M. R. (2013). A Preliminary Investigation Into the Effect of Yoga Practice on Mindfulness and Flow in Elite Youth Swimmers. The Sport Psychologist, 27, 349-359.

Cathcart, S., McGregor, M., Groundwater, E. (2014). Mindfulness and Flow in Elite Athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 8, 119-141.

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1992). Flow, The Psychology of Happiness. USA. Harper and Row/Rider. pp 4-10.

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren't we happy? American Psychologist. 54, 821-827.

Gascon, M., Sánchez-Benavides, G., Dadvand, P., Martinez, D., Gramunt, N., Gotsens, X., Cirach, M., Vert, C., Molinuevo, J. L., Crous-Bou, M., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2018). Long-term exposure to residential green and blue spaces and anxiety and depression in adults: A cross-sectional study. Environmental Research. 162. pp 231-239.

Kennon, M. S., Prentice, M., Halusic, M. (2014). The Experiential Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Flow Absorption. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 276-282.

Mills, M. J., & Fillagar, C. J. (2010). Motivation and Flow: Toward an Understanding of the Dynamics of the relation in Architecture Students. The journal of Psychology.

Niemiec, R. M. (2013). When Mindfulness Trumps Flow. Psychology Today.

Pineua, T. R., Glass, C. R., Kaufman, K. A., Bernal. D. R. (2014). Self- and Team-Efficacy Beliefs of Rowers and Their Relation to Mindfulness and Flow. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 8. 142-158.

Positive Psychlopedia. (2015). The Benefits of Flow. The Positive Psychlopedia.

Reid, D. (2012). Mindfulness and Flow in occupational engagement: Presence in doing. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 78, 50-56.

External links[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

  1. Bishop, Scott R.; Lau, Mark; Shapiro, Shauna; Carlson, Linda; Anderson, Nicole D.; Carmody, James; Segal, Zindel V.; Abbey, Susan et al. (2006-05-11). "Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition". Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11 (3): 230–241. doi:10.1093/clipsy.bph077. ISSN 0969-5893. 
  2. "The 23 Amazing Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Body and Brain (+ PDFs)". 2017-03-06. Retrieved 2018-08-29.
  3. "Mindfulness Exercises: 8 That Fit into Your Day". PsyBlog. 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2018-10-11.
  4. "Long-term exposure to residential green and blue spaces and anxiety and depression in adults: A cross-sectional study". Environmental Research 162: 231–239. 2018-04-01. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.01.012. ISSN 0013-9351. 
  5. Bartley, T. 2011. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Cancer. Wiley - Blackwell.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1992). Flow, The Psychology of Happiness. Pp 4. USA. Harper and Row. Rider.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "When Mindfulness Trumps Flow". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  8. "The benefits of flow". The Positive Psychlopedia. 2015-06-15. Retrieved 2018-08-29.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Cathcart, S., McGregor, M., Groundwater, E. (2014). Mindfulness and Flow in Elite Athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology,8, 119-141.
  10. Pineua, T. R., Glass, C. R., Kaufman, K. A., Bernal. D. R. (2014). Self- and Team-Efficacy Beliefs of Rowers and Their Relation to Mindfulness and Flow. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 8.142-158.
  11. Pineau, Timothy R.; Glass, Carol R.; Kaufman, Keith A.; Bernal, Darren R. (2014-06). "Self- and Team-Efficacy Beliefs of Rowers and Their Relation to Mindfulness and Flow". Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology 8 (2): 142–158. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2014-0019. ISSN 1932-9261. 
  12. Baer, Ruth A.; Smith, Gregory T.; Lykins, Emily; Button, Daniel; Krietemeyer, Jennifer; Sauer, Shannon; Walsh, Erin; Duggan, Danielle et al. (2008-9). "Construct validity of the five facet mindfulness questionnaire in meditating and nonmeditating samples". Assessment 15 (3): 329–342. doi:10.1177/1073191107313003. ISSN 1073-1911. PMID 18310597. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Reid, Denise (2011-02). "Mindfulness and Flow in Occupational Engagement: Presence in Doing". Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy 78 (1): 50–56. doi:10.2182/cjot.2011.78.1.7. ISSN 0008-4174. 
  14. Briegel-Jones, Richard M.H.; Knowles, Zoe; Eubank, Martin R.; Giannoulatos, Katie; Elliot, Diane (2013-12). "A Preliminary Investigation Into the Effect of Yoga Practice on Mindfulness and Flow in Elite Youth Swimmers". The Sport Psychologist 27 (4): 349–359. doi:10.1123/tsp.27.4.349. ISSN 0888-4781. 
  15. Sheldon, Kennon M.; Prentice, Mike; Halusic, Marc (2014-10-16). "The Experiential Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Flow Absorption". Social Psychological and Personality Science 6 (3): 276–283. doi:10.1177/1948550614555028. ISSN 1948-5506.