‘Flow’ is a term used in Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science. It was first coined by a researcher called Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s and 80s in his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1987). He studied the importance of play for it’s own sake, not just as an added extra in life.
If someone is in flow they are completely absorbed in a satisfying activity. The activity needs to provide a balance between the level of challenge and the individual’s level of skill. When an individual is in flow they are in a rewarding psychological state and will carry on with the activity with heightened concentration and awareness, often not noticing the time passing- think about computer game designers, they understand this concept very well and design games that keep keen gamers at their computers for hours!
It is important for occupational therapists to understand flow as it is crucial to finding what motivates an individual and what activities will be most effective in rehabilitation and in daily routines. Activities that induce ‘flow’ are very individualised, because individuals have different skills and interests, what works for one will not be effective for another.
Being in ‘flow’ is generally a positive and satisfying experience, but can have some negative consequences, for example a skilled knitter who has arthrititis in the joints of the hands and carries on with an interesting pattern for too long, may aggravate the damage to joints by keeping them in a fixed position for too long.
Flow is the reason why the saying “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is so true. When we understand flow we see that there is not necessarily a distinction between work and play. Flow can be experienced in either. Activities where individuals experience flow are ones that they will persevere with and maintain, even when they become difficult due to health problems. This may change over the life span however, and it is important to maintain an individual’s ability to be engaged in some activity that allows them to experience flow, even when work and previous interests are no longer pursued.
A balance between work, rest and play helps us to maintain healthy lives. Occupational therapists work to help people maintain independence and quality of life in all three areas to ensure a satisfying and healthy life. Understanding flow can help us to help our clients and patients to achieve this.