As with many of the blogs that I write I like to start with one or more questions. In this instance I am asking whether using your signature or top strengths can increase the likelihood of you experiencing flow state more often? But, secondly, does it matter and if the answer is yes then why?
As a positive psychology practitioner both flow and strengths are of great interest to me with the former being my particular area of study during my time on the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at Buckinghamshire New University. More latterly I have become extremely interested in 'strengths' and I am currently a student of the School of Positive Transformation where I am immersed in their Strengths Practitioner course. So, before I address the title of this blog, and the subsequent expansion of the question, I will backup slightly to explain what strengths are and what being in a flow state is all about.
What are strengths?
Strengths are not simply something that you are good at because you can be very accomplished at something without necessarily enjoying it... When you use a strength, or a combination of strengths, you tend to feel energised and it is enjoyable. You are intrinsically motivated. On the other hand you can be very competent and skillful at something that in fact drains you!
Initially, when I embarked on my positive psychology studies I found 'strengths' to be a little confusing because I was not sure whether we were talking about skills, competencies, personality traits, aspects of character or what?
One of the defining aspects of positive psychology is that it looks at what is right with us instead of what is wrong with us and moves psychology towards a more balanced approach to our mental health and overall wellbeing. In traditional psychology the 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) is the underpinning reference. While the VIA (Values in Action) classification of 24 character strengths provides a handbook which underpins positive psychology (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). These character strengths fall under 6 moral virtues - Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence - which is vitally important as it emphasises that both using our strengths and being in a flow state (as I will discuss shortly) are based on us having a sound moral compass.
But, 'strengths' can also refer to skills, competencies, and traits such as listener, writer, planner, organiser, open mindedness, adaptability, teamwork, optimism, resilience etc. etc. So, in a sense, there are almost an infinite number of strengths, or labels for strengths, with the only limitation being language! And it is that which is perhaps a little confusing? Of course this could just be me as I tend to like things to be quantifiable and ordered (after all two of my strengths are 'organiser' and 'planner')! What is important to take away, at this point, is that developing your own language for strengths is important and even more vital is that you can identify and use them so that you can energise your life.
What is flow state?
Flow, being in flow, and being able to facilitate flow are very much my bit of positive psychology not least because I have often experienced 'being in the zone' and being totally immersed in what I am doing because of my background in sport and coaching.
I have written a great deal about flow in previous blog articles such as;
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the father of flow (1975) and his construct consists of nine dimensions (2017);
Antecedents or Foundations of Flow
Process Outcomes or Characteristics
Merging of action and awareness
Sense of control
Loss of self-consciousness
Distortion of time
Intrinsic motivation (autotelism)
In order to experience flow the foundations all need to be in place. In my 2019 research I posited that there are, in fact, four foundations (Tate, 2020, chapter 10). When you move into the flow zone (Tate, 2022, pg. 144-151) you will experience some or all of the characteristics and this influences the quality of that flow experience.
Where is the link between strengths and flow?
The most obvious links between strengths and flow is that both involve intrinsic motivation (doing something for its own sake more than the external reward). Enjoyment is also a common factor both during and after the activity. And the after effects of using your strengths and being in flow is one of feeling energised. Therefore, it would seem that strengths use provides a potential trigger for flow state.
But, is there any evidence to back up my thoughts and assumptions? Wei Liu, Dimitri van der Linden & Arnold B. Bakker (2022) looked at strengths use in the work environment and whether it resulted in more flow experiences for employees. Their findings showed that when employees used their strengths more often they also reported an increase in flow experiences. However, they noted that following flow attention levels dropped. In another study Cedomir Ignjatovic, Margaret L. Kern & Lindsay G. Oades (2022) examined the relationship between using strengths and flow at work for school staff. This was done over a three year period. Their findings were somewhat inconclusive in that while they found that there was a correlation between strengths use and flow experiences at measured time points they could not predict that strengths use resulted in flow or vice versa.
My own conclusion to this is that firstly, more research needs to be done and not just in the work environment but across other life domains. And while it would be nice to have a greater body of evidence supporting my assumptions many other scholars and practitioners have made similar assertions.
Why does it matter?
If we conclude that being in flow, on a regular basis, has many positive benefits, including improving our mental health and that using our strengths also provides many mental health benefits and helps to trigger flow then combining the two would seem logical?
harnessing the power of strengths to create more flow
The diagram below suggests a process that you can follow in order to combine strengths and flow and reap all the benefits that follow.
To begin this process you need to discover what your strengths are. You can do this in a number of ways. Learn more about strengths through reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos, attending workshops or taking a strengths assessment.
Then use your strengths while learning about using them wisely, avoiding overuse, and combining your strengths.
Next notice when using your strengths leads to flow experiences. Does using your strengths always lead to a flow experience? Knowing more about flow and understanding its dimensions can make this an easier process.
The next step is about finding new ways to use your top strengths because this will lead to you being able to experience flow in new activities while increasing your awareness of which characteristics of the flow experience are present for you in different activities. After all it is possible to experience flow differently (intensity and depth) depending on the activity.
Finally, you should develop some of your lesser strengths (also referred to as unrealised strengths by Linley & Bateman, 2018). By doing this you have the opportunity to further expand your repertoire of flow activities which, in turn, can potentially increase the frequency of your flow experiences across your work, leisure and life in general.
If you would like to learn more about harnessing the power of strengths and flow then why not join me for my live online workshop;
Strengths & Flow: Understanding, spotting, and using strengths to foster flow.
Click here or on the picture below for more info and to find out when the next workshop is taking place.
About the author
Derek Tate is an alpine skiing coach and director of British Alpine Ski School Chamonix. He is a mental skills coach, positive psychology practitioner and author. His recent books include, "Six Steps for Training the Mind", "Learn, Enjoy, Flow & Grow" and "Transformational Flow Coaching". You can learn more from his author page.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Latter, P., & Duranso, C. W. (2017). Running flow: Mental immersion techniques for better running. Human Kinetics.
Ignjatovic, C., Kern, M.L. & Oades, L.G. Flow Support at Work: Examining the Relationship Between Strengths Use and Flow at Work Among School Staff over a Three-Year Period. J Happiness Stud 23, 455–475 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00409-x
Linley, A., & Bateman, T. (2018). The strengths profile book: Finding what you can do + love to do and why it matters (2nd ed.). CAPP Press.
Liu, W., van der Linden, D. and Bakker, A.B. (2022), "Strengths use and work-related flow: an experience sampling study on implications for risk taking and attentional behaviors", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp. 47-60. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-07-2020-0403
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press; American Psychological Association.
Tate, D. (2019). Mindful ascending for flowing descending: Can teaching alpine ski instructors mindfulness strategies foster more flow experiences on the slopes? Buckinghamshire New University.
Tate, D. N. (2020). Learn, Enjoy, Flow and Grow: Using the principles of positive psychology to help find passion and meaning in life (First). Parallel Dreams Publishing.
Tate, D. N. (2022). Six Steps for Training the Mind: For optimal performance and flow in sport and life (First). Parallel Dreams Publishing.