Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that you lost track of time? Felt so “in the zone” that you haven’t thought of anything else but the task in front of you? You were experiencing flow—what Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and coiner of the term defines as “the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement.”
Flow is a subjective but universally sought-after experience, a condition that often occurs when a person is tasked with a difficult challenge that matches their level of skill. The achievement of flow is linked to increased happiness, a better sense of well-being, and enhanced productivity and motivation.
So it should come as no surprise that major companies like Microsoft, Patagonia, and Toyota recognize flow as a crucial component for employee productivity and satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi says that, without flow, there can be no creativity–a crucial component for success in our quickly innovating, global world of business.
Jeremy Jensen, KSB/MBA ’14, credits flow as the catalyst for changing his life. Although he was successfully working as a consultant in DC after graduation, Jensen felt like his life was missing the elements that made him feel alive, the physical challenges he loved growing up in the wilds of Utah. When he began researching how to build a fulfilling career around alternative lifestyles, he came across the concept of flow. “I knew I needed to follow this path of study because it lit me up and made me feel alive,” Jensen says. “I became fascinated with dissecting how other people were successfully designing fulfilling lives that align with what they value.”
Jensen started a podcast in order to talk to and learn from the people who were living the kind of life he wanted, and in 2018, he started his company Outwild—with Oscar award-winning Sanni McCandless, the second person he interviewed on his podcast.
Flow is a theme in many of Outwild’s activities. Through events like rock climbing, hiking, yoga, and workshops on topics like value alignment, how to avoid burnout, and—you guessed it—flow, participants focus on defining success on their own terms, taking action, and playing hard outside. Attendees break out of their comfort zones, experience the types of challenges that encourage flow, and, by the end of the weekend, leave with a lasting shift of mind that will follow them home.
Jensen credits flow as the reason he is so happy with the work that he does now and credits it with the creative spark that led to Outwild. “You don’t have to go for a run by the river to find flow. There are opportunities all around us, even in your tasks at work,” he explains. “Academic research correlates flow and happiness. People who achieve the most flow are the happiest on the planet.”
The research behind the connection between flow and happiness is a little complicated, but generally speaking, once you achieve flow, your mind will be focused on the present—not thinking about deadlines, money problems, or other stressors. Chemically speaking, your brain releases norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. The combination of these chemicals makes you feel good and helps you better perform the task that gave your body the initial flow response.
The responses that Jensen gets from guests after they’ve returned home from Outwild are telling. “One guest told me that we not only changed his life but that Outwild saved his life,” says Jensen. “Flow makes us happier, helps us perform at a higher level, and propels us to get more done.”
By incorporating flow into your workday more intentionally, you may discover new, creative ways to enhance other areas of your life. Jensen cites the words of civil rights leader Howard Thurman as a motivator to continue doing what he loves: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So don’t just make flow a part of your business plan—make it a part of your life.