'Flow' is a key to happiness, but you may need to put down your smartphone

Getting immersed in a challenging task makes us feel better
'Flow' happens when we're completely absorbed in an activity.

By Nora Young

If there's something deeply satisfying about complete absorption in a task, are we short-circuiting that happiness by picking up our phones?

I've been thinking about this question recently because I've started drawing. Nothing fancy -- nothing very good, even -- just little studies of things around me: the cat, a plant, a cup.

But the thing is, this small task is incredibly rewarding, in particular because it's so absorbing. I'm not thinking about what I have to do tomorrow, or...anything, really.

That wonderful feeling is called "flow". The term was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (you can watch his TED Talk on it here).

Elizabeth Dunn, professor at the University of British Columbia specializing in how time, technology and money affect happiness. (UBC Psychology)

"When we have this kind of balance between the level of challenge that we're faced with and our own abilities, we can slip into this state of absorption called flow," explained Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies how time, money, and technology shape human happiness.

I think that captures the feeling I get drawing. It's like the world falls away, and I get out of my own way.

Basil plant (in case you can't tell). (Nora Young)

"States or activities that produce a feeling of flow tend to be very attractive to us," Dunn explained. "I experience a state of flow when I'm mountain biking on a good trail, something that challenges me, that I'm capable of doing but that consumes my attention."

My right foot. (Nora Young)

Finding an activity where we feel challenged without being frustrated is key, Dunn said. "If you were drawing a stick figure, it probably wouldn't produce that feeling of flow, but if you're trying to draw something that pushes you a little bit but isn't so impossible that it's frustrating, that's where you're most likely to experience that state of absorption."

If we can do things that block out all the other random thoughts...that seems to be associated with more positive feelings- Elizabeth Dunn

But why is this absorption so pleasurable? Dunn said that, "when people feel distracted and bored...that's when they tend to experience more negative moods, so if we can do things that block out all the other random thoughts...that seems to be associated with more positive feelings."

Lola the cat. (Nora Young)

What, then, does all this have to do with our technology? It's no surprise that the way our phones tend to interrupt us can short-circuit flow states by pulling us out of the moment. Maybe all those notifications are getting in the way of getting more flow in our lives.

"It kind of steps in when we're out in the regular world...spending time with friends or family, and the phone makes itself known, pulls us out of what we're doing, and that's where we see phones potentially interrupting that feeling of flow," Dunn explained.

One of the great things about technology is that it can readily adapt to our own ability level- Elizabeth Dunn

The good news, though, is that we can use digital technology to achieve that flow state, provided we do it mindfully.

Trying to get the ear right (cat kept moving!) (Nora Young)

"There's absolutely no reason why activities that we do through our phones or computers would be incapable of producing flow," Dunn said. "One of the great things about technology is that it can readily adapt to our own ability level…[Video games] are built to adjust themselves to our ability levels, and that's going to be something that should promote feelings of flow."

RELATED: Spark producer takes a 'notification vacation' 



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.