Being totally absorbed, feeling optimally challenged and concentrated – these are just a few of the characteristics that constitute flow, defined as a personal experience marked by deep enjoyment and total immersion in what one does.

Nine dimensions have been described to make up the flow experience:

  • a balance between challenges and one’s skills
  • the merging of action and awareness
  • clarity of goals
  • clear, immediate, and unambiguous task feedback
  • total concentration
  • a sense of control over one’s actions
  • the loss of self-consciousness
  • the transformation of time (e.g., time typically passes faster than normal)
  • the feeling that the experience is intrinsically rewarding (i.e., autotelic).

Flow theory draws heavily from Aristotle’s notion of pleasure in unimpeded activity and can be considered to be a eudaimonic approach to subjective wellbeing. Past research has related flow experiences to decreases in fatigue, increases in wellbeing and creative thinking, as well as self-growth in a variety of settings including schools, universities and work environments.

Usually, however, all that glistens is not gold and the concept of flow is no exception. By definition, flow experiences are transient and subject to fluctuations. Put differently, whether or not a person is “in flow” can change from day to day, or from moment to moment. What is more, flow theory does not have an inbuilt moral compass and flow experiences are consequentially amoral.

Indeed, it is possible for flow experiences to be destructive to the self and the culture one is surrounded by. Theoretically, a robber can be in flow whilst committing a crime.

Drawing on these issues, I will explore potential solutions to foster flow experiences consistently in a variety of settings and to counteract the destructive potential arising from the amoral nature of flow.

Nakamura and Csikszentmihályi recognised that whilst there seems to be a universal capacity to experience flow, people differ with regards to the frequency as well as the quality of flow experiences. Everyone may be able to experience flow during their daily activities, but some individuals have more frequent, intense flow experiences.

Csikszentmihályi refers to these individuals as autotelic personalities. They can deliberately enter flow and maintain this state for prolonged periods of time. However, there is disagreement on how to assess whether an individual actually possesses this flow proneness.

A potential way forward may be to view personality not as a stable, unchanging set of traits but rather as a density distribution of states. Previous research has shown daily experiences and events can change personality states and subsequently have the potential to leave a profound mark on an individual’s personality over time. Daily experiences can solidify a change in an individual’s personality, which in turn, has an impact on how an individual reacts to his or her environment in the future.

In the context of flow, if an environment is conducive to flow experiences, over time this may contribute to the development of autotelic personalities. Previous research has already established the existence of intra-individual variability in daily flow experiences (i.e. some individuals exhibiting high flow variability, whereas others have very stable flow experiences over time) and that this can affect the creativity of individuals in work settings. Therefore, a proposition to foster more frequent and lasting flow experiences would be to (re-)engineer environments in a way that they are more conducive to flow, which may potentially generate autotelic personalities over time.

In regard to the potentially destructive consequences of flow experiences as described above, the possibility to change the amoral character of flow to a moral one appears to be unlikely. Therefore, my suggestions pertain to influencing the more proximal causes that generate flow experiences such as the enactment of character strengths.

Character strengths are defined as a subset of personality with a moral component. Furthermore, several scholars have argued for a link between the use of character strengths and flow experiences. In addition to this, a study by Woerkom and colleagues (2016) recently provided empirical evidence for the relationship between strengths’ use and increased work engagement, a concept akin to flow experiences.

As there is a moral value attached to character strengths, flow experiences that arise from such activities are unlikely to lead to destructive acts. Thus, a way to foster moral flow would entail a focus on character education with the goal of encouraging the use of character strengths. The potential downstream effects of this intervention could be to foster a flow experience in individuals that retains a moral component because it is the result of enacting character strengths in schools, universities and work environments.

I encourage practitioners to create environments that foster flow and that, over time, contribute to the development of individuals that can enter and maintain flow more deliberately, i.e., autotelic personalities. Interventions along the lines of character education are proposed to ensure flow experiences resulting from the enactment of character strengths retain a moral component.

Jakob Stollberger, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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