Research shows that flow-inducing activities can boost mental well-being in uncertain times.
On the 23rd January 2020 the first coronavirus lockdown began in Wuhan. The world watched in disbelief as millions of people were forced to stay home. Of course, it wasn’t long before countries around the world followed their lead.
A year later and periods of quarantine have become part of our social fabric. We’ve become used to staying indoors for weeks on end. Terms like “self-isolate” and “socially distanced” have become just as ubiquitous and mundane as “catching up” or “having a night in”.
Somewhere along the way, our dystopian realities became a little less jarring. But even if lockdown does feel “normal” now, it doesn’t make the waiting any easier. As the UK plods through its third lockdown, many of us are left wondering when, if at all, our lives will get back to normal.
Without the adrenaline of the first lockdown, many of us feel depleted. The novelty of virtual workouts and family catch-ups has worn off. We’re fatigued from incessant zoom calls and uninspired by Clap for Carers that encapsulated a spirit of community and hope during the first lockdown. We are fed up, restless, and itching to go outdoors.
It’s no surprise that humans find waiting difficult. According to Kate Sweeney, Professor of psychology at the University of California, waiting periods are hard because they combine two existentially challenging states: “not knowing what’s coming – uncertainty – and not being able to do much about it – lack of control.”
In fact, we hate waiting periods so much, that we would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news or suffering than be in limbo. In a study conducted by three institutions in the UK in 2013, 35 individuals were asked to choose between receiving a sharp electric shock immediately, or wait for a milder one. The majority chose the more painful option, opting to get it over-with.
We hate waiting periods so much, that we would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news or suffering than be in limbo.
“We are wired to be uncomfortable in those situations and be motivated to find ways to resolve our uncertainty or regain control,” Kate Sweeney explains. “When we can’t do that, it’s very challenging”.
This information doesn’t bear very well with our present realities. As Sweeney relays, unlike waiting for an exam score or the results from a mammogram, “in the case of COVID-19, the wait we are currently encountering is open-ended, with no clear end in sight.”
But waiting might not have to be so difficult. When Wuhan went into lockdown last year, Sweeney and her team conducted research into the well-being of those in isolation, looking specifically at two potential coping strategies during this stressful period: flow and mindfulness.
Interestingly, it was flow, not mindfulness, that led to greater well-being during lockdown. While both practices were seen as helpful in mitigating negative emotions and anxious symptoms, flow was also able to mitigate loneliness and promote healthy behaviours. In fact, people in a lengthy quarantine who reported higher than average flow experience were no worse off than the people who had not yet quarantined.
Unlike mindfulness, which draws an individual’s attention to their internal and external experiences, flow reduces self-awareness and awareness of one’s external environment. The term was first used by the American-Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who in 1975, described flow as moments where individuals become “utterly absorbed in what they are doing, paying undivided attention to the task, their awareness merged with their actions.”
He theorised that for a flow state to incur, the task must be intrinsically rewarding, rather than motivated by external factors. “The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake,” he writes, “and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.”
This is why tasks that have purpose – like doing a puzzle or baking a cake – are more conducive to flow states than undemanding activities like watching TV or having a bath. Csikszentmihalyi also specifies that the task must be challenging enough to match one’s skill level, but not so much that it overwhelms you. Nonetheless, he specifies that individuals can enter a state of flow from the most routine tasks, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn, particularly if we conduct them purposefully.
People in a lengthy quarantine who reported higher than average flow experience were no worse off than the people who had not yet quarantined.
Be it athletics, work, or a creative project, flow-inducing activities are so engrossing that we lose track of time. It is for this reason that Sweeney says that a good test of whether something can bring you into a flow state is if “it’s the kind of activity you can’t do if you’ve got to leave the house in 15 minutes, because you know you will just completely lose track of time”.
From adversity to challenge
A month into 2021, it feels challenging to view January in the same terms of optimism and renewal we usually do. But if we are able to immerse ourselves into activities which we can lose ourselves in, the wait might become a bit more manageable. Whether it is taking up a new language, playing chess, or attempting to cook a challenging meal, engaging in purposeful activities can distract us from dwelling on the uncertainty of our surroundings and absorb us into something we enjoy.
“Of all the virtues we can learn,” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”
“No trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”