[originally published on the Podio blog, 6 May 2011. Reproduced here in full.]
Charles Walker, of St Bonaventure University, wanted to test the idea that activities that lead people to a ‘flow state’ are more enjoyable when they are social, as opposed to solitary. Walker was referring to the concept of ‘flow’ as originally researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-hy CHEEK-sent-mə-HY-ee):
In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
We have all had experiences when things just seem to click — perhaps in a game of basketball with buddies, concentrating on some project, or during intense conversation with colleagues — and we feel more alive, and happy. The emotion most associated with flow is joy. Obviously, we cannot be in a flow state at all times, but just as obvious is the fact that the more often we manage to achieve a flow state the better.
Walker started with the hypothesis that social flow states are more enjoyable to the individuals involved than solitary ones. Note that early research into flow was almost exclusively focused on flow as an individual phenomenon, although some work has been done on teaching, sports, music and dance, but that work is limited.
Walker devised a study to compare the level of happiness (‘joy’) in solitary versus social activities, the details of which I leave to his paper. But bottom line, he contrasted solitary activities — like singing alone, cooking alone, gardening alone — with their social analogues — joining a jam session, cooking and eating with friends, acting in a play with others — and found that social activities seem to be inherently more satisfying. Once again, it seems that we are social in our deepest DNA.
Walker also makes the useful distinction between ‘co-active’ social flow and ‘interactive social flow’. Consider the difference between skiing with friends and playing basketball. The skiing might be social, but the degree of necessary coordination between the skiers is low: just co-active. However, the coordination between team members playing basketball is high: interactive.
And his conclusions?
Solitary flow, while quite enjoyable, is not as enjoyable as social flow. The present research also revealed some of the qualities of social flow and shed light on some of the conditions that produce it. Social interdependence and emotional contagion can enhance the joy and elation felt during and after flow experiences.Predicted conditions and indicators of solitary and social flow.Solitary flowConditions
- The unit of performance is an individual
- The individual is sufficiently competent to dispatch challenges
- Emergent challenges are important & meaningful• Challenging tasks are unitary and require an individual performer
- Tasks only allow solitary performance
- The performer focuses on the task to receive feedback
- Task feedback is clear & immediate
- Task feedback is primarily cognitive and secondarily affectiveIndicators
- High absorption & engagement with the task
- Sense of time lost
- Less awareness of self
- Joy, elation and enthusiasm felt upon the completion of a task.
- Builds meaning and a sense of purpose
- A desire to the repeat the experienceSocial flowConditions
- The unit of performance is a group or team
- The collective competency of the group is sufficient to dispatch challenges
- Group members are uniformly highly competent
- Group members have task-relevant knowledge & skills about each other
- Emergent challenges are important & meaningful to the entire group
- Tasks prescribe interdependence, coordination & cooperation
- Tasks are conjunctive and require complementary participation
- Group members focus on each other as well as the task to receive feedback
- Task feedback is clear & immediate
- Task feedback is primarily cognitive and secondarily affective
- Social process feedback is primarily affective and secondarily cognitive
- Shared intense absorption & engagement with the task
- High attention to group members or teammates
- Loss of sense of time
- Less awareness of self
- Surrender of self to the group
- Emotional communication during group work
- Emotional contagion within the group and observers external the group
- Joy, elation and enthusiasm felt and shared throughout group performance
- The experience builds meaning and a collective sense of purpose
- The group desires to the repeat the experience
- Rituals may be established to institutionalize social flow
It is my strongly held belief that this research lends support to the business correllary of Walker’s argument: working together is better than working alone. And the conditions that lead to high performing teams are the same that lead to social flow:
- high attention among the group to the mental state of the others, also known as social sensitivity
- high level of competence of the team members
- a level of competence equal to the challenge confronting the team
- feedback on tasks and performance is immediate
- tasks are interdependent, requiring complementary participation
- a shared sense of purpose, and close identification with the group
- shared responsibility for accomplishing the group’s goal.
Whatever training and tools can be applied that will increase the likelihood of teams to achieve a collective sense of flow in everyday work, should be.
Other researchers — like Robert Meade — have shown that our time sense at work is malleable, and can be strongly influenced by setting near term goals and sharing them:
Robert Levin, A Geography Of Time
Psychologists and planners have sometimes used the “time flies” phenomenon to their advantage. In one project, for example, psychologist Robert Meade was able to improve workers’ morale by speeding up the psychological clock. Meade took advantage of the fact that that time is experienced as shorter when people believe that they are making progress toward a goal. The sense of progress, he found, can be enhanced through simple procedures such as establishing a definite end point to the task and providing incentives to reach those goals. Before his experiment, Meade heard comments from workers like “It sees like the day would never end” or “It seems like I’ve been here all day but it’s not even lunchtime yet.” After establishing a sense of progress there were proclamations like “The day went by so quickly — it seems like I just got started.” It is difficult to know, of course, to what extent speeding up the passage of time led to a more pleasant experience or vice versa. The direction of cause and effect, however, is less important than the net effect on workers’ well-being. Employers might be pleased to note that these increases in morale are often accompanied by accelerate production.
I commented on this phenomenon recently, suggesting that work media tools — like Podio and its competitors — can help to make ‘time fly’:
Simply by providing a context in which users establish what they are working on, and posting notes about their progress — or asking other for help to make progress — and receiving feedback as they make progress, workers using streaming apps are likely to experience time as moving more quickly. This is either associated in our minds with other experiences that make us happy, or directly makes us happy. In either case, it seems fairly obvious that users are happier when exposed to social work contexts with these characteristics.
Management may have a hard time accepting the soft benefits of time compression and the way that tools modify our consciousness, but they will readily accept improvement in productivity and work attitudes.
Note that incentives can be amazingly minimal: just the positive regard of close contacts can be enough.
This sense of time going faster is one of the most common ways that people talk about flow states. It may seem a bit fluffy to go to management and suggest that work media can change our consciousness into a state of joy, but they are always willing to hear about ways to make teams more productive.