Getting Into A ‘Flow State’ Is Great For Getting Work Done, But It Can Improve Your Relationship Too (Here’s How)

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Relationship Advice For Getting Into Flow State To Improve Romantic Love For Couples
Love

When couples are learning how to have healthy relationships, they don't really think about the flow state.

What exactly is it and how does it help when you're married or in a relationship?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, is the leading authority on flow theory. Flow is happiness, joy, and rapture, the ultimate ecstatic state. In his important book, Flow, he defines flow as enjoyed engagement.

There is a feeling of being swept up in the creative process, losing all sense of time. It is an experience of joy, passion, and deep fulfillment.

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Between 1990 and 1995, Csikszentmihalyi studied the lives of 91 exceptionally creative people in the arts, athletics, business, sciences, and government. He found that these were the people who were apt to move into flow state most frequently. He also conducted a study of thousands of people who were less accomplished.

The subjects consented to keep a pager with them 100 percent of the time. When the beeper goes off (randomly several times a day), they are instructed to write in a notebook what they are doing at that moment and rate how much they are enjoying it.

Not surprisingly, the bodily pleasures of eating and sex got high ratings. But, even higher ratings went to what he calls a state of total immersion in a task that matches our abilities and passions and challenges us to focus intently. Athletes call it "being in the zone".

Flow is a process whereby an initial interest and enjoyment expands and deepens over a period of years to the point where these people become the biggest experts in their fields. At the beginning of their process, there were only intermittent moments of flow.

Over time, the practice of "vital engagement" where people are consistently doing what they love, they have a clear sense of their identity, strengths, talents, passion, and purpose.

Flow feels like effortless movement whether skiing, playing team sports, ice skating, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, painting, making love, writing, photographing or having an intense conversation. It is not the activity itself that makes the difference; it is the level of challenge that fully engages our attention, combined with the positive feelings that accompany the utilization of our skills and strengths.

Once we enter the state of flow, work becomes effortless.

This leading authority on flow state states: "People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are greater than usual and they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety."

It may not be the most typical of relationship advice but the very same principles that allowed the most accomplished people in the arts, business, sciences, and government to excel also pertains to those with the highest levels of fulfillment in their marriages.

Committed partnerships offer plenty of challenges and that’s a good thing. We are weaving two lives, each with a different history, tastes, preferences, values, unhealed psychological wounds, ways of processing information, attitudes beliefs, and life goals. In the midst of all these differences is our vision of creating a fulfilling life together.

The differences, when they show themselves, can frighten us and make us angry. Part of the work required is to learn how to manage the strong emotions that erupt so that we learn from these feelings to move the relationship forward.

Together, we pit ourselves against the challenge of becoming more emotionally fit to become eligible for that great and healty relationship we long for. We have the option of holding everything the relationship presents to us as an opportunity to become stronger. As much as our mind may desire comfort and security, a wiser part of us knows that we can’t become stronger without challenging workouts in our relationship.

What’s required to move into that state of flow is to learn how to manage the intense feelings that plague relationships, fear, anxiety, doubt, anger, rage, resentment, boredom, lethargy, depression, and cynicism about things improving.

One or both of the couple can be overwhelmed with highly charged emotions that squeeze out the romantic love and happiness from their relationship.

Learning how to modulate the intensity of these feelings positions us well to move into the higher states where focused attention is acute.

Once we become accomplished at moving into a cooler state, not encumbered by intense emotions, concentration can be highly focused. Only then can we can enjoy the pleasure and grace of operating harmoniously as an effective team.

Diligent practice of our relationship skills brings trust and co-operation that provides the ability to do the metaphoric dance of relationship with elegance, style, and beauty.

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The flow state may show itself in the form of joint creative expression, literally dancing, singing, writing, teaching, ecstatic lovemaking, having a compelling conversation, raising children with inspiration, or creating an abundant, interesting, loving life together.

It’s possible but it’s a lot of work. The intrinsic joy in the process of moving towards mastery propels us forward. Using more of our innate capacities, persisting in the face of breakdowns and disappointments makes us stronger.

With a full-hearted commitment and single-minded focus, we get better and better. And that is what results in the deep feeling of satisfaction that comes when we are bringing forth the very best in each other.

Flow is the ultimate ecstatic experience, the highest level of happiness.

A successful marriage operates in flow state a large portion of the time because both partners are meeting challenges with skills. Here is a story of a couple, Antra and Rich, who discovered an excellent way to enter flow together.

"One of my very favorite ways of getting into flow state with my husband Rich is ice dancing," says the wife, Anta. "He used to be a hockey player and he’s a really good ice skater. Many years ago, I decided to take up skating. I took lessons for years, lots and lots of lessons, and eventually became a pretty good skater. Then I talked him into giving his hockey skates for figures skates, which was not easy for a hockey player to do. Now we do ice-dancing together.”

Her husband, Rich, adds, "I love the way that we can move and flow together gliding across the ice. It feels completely natural and effortless. Often, it’s not clear which of us is leading and which of us is following. At these movements, I feel we are dissolving into each other and into oneness. For me, skating together to music we both love, looking into each other’s eyes, is heaven on ice."

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This couple found an athletic activity that takes them right into flow. But there are many ways to get there.

Brenda McDaniel is an assistant professor of psychology at Kansas State University. She found that "a majority of the literature focuses on experiencing flow in a job or activity." But in her study, she examined how couples might experience flow during meaningful conversations.

McDaniels’s research found that engaging in flow is often associated with happiness and positive characteristics of relationships. Her findings show that those couples engaging in rewarding conversations are less likely to hold on to anger and stress and are more likely to be satisfied with their relationship.

She summarizes her research with this statement, "This positive rewarding state of flow during conversation may be one of the factors that create enduring marital relationships."

Here is a starter kit of ideas and activities where some couples move into flow state (be sure to add your own).

  • Sharing meaningful intimate conversations
  • Making love
  • Sharing a hobby
  • Playing games (cards, chess, etc.)
  • Adventures like traveling together to exotic destinations
  • Listening to music together
  • Co-authoring an article poem or book
  • Doing yoga together (Try partner yoga)
  • Skiing
  • Riding bicycles
  • Snowboarding
  • Hiking nature trails
  • Mountain climbing
  • Massaging each other
  • Cooking a meal
  • Decorating your home
  • Discussing the book you’re reading
  • Gardening
  • Singing together
  • Playing with ideas

This is just a starter kit. Be sure to add your favorites!

Once you start, think about these 4 things.

  1. Which of these activities do you participate in with your partner to enter into a flow state?
  2. Once you have identified the ways you enter into flow state, assess the regularity with which you participate in these behaviors.
  3. Assess whether you would like the frequency to be greater, and what that would require of you.
  4. What activities would you like to add?

Diligent practice of our relationship skills, the trust, and cooperation that has accumulated culminates in our enhanced ability to do the metaphoric dance of relationship with elegance, style, and beauty.

The flow state may show itself in the form of athletic or intellectual pursuits, adventure, or creative expression.

You might find your joy by literally dancing together, singing together, writing together, teaching together, in the form of ecstatic lovemaking, having a compelling conversation, raising children together with inspiration, or creating an abundant, interesting, loving life together.

It’s possible. So what if it’s a lot of work? Depending on the regularity with which you participate in these behaviors, elegant delight will characterize your partnership.

Is there anything that would be more important to do with your time?

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Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, are psychotherapists and relationship counselors who have worked with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations since 1975. To learn more, visit their website, Bloom Work.

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This article was originally published at PsychCentral. Reprinted with permission from the author.