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The Science of Flow- Why Getting “In the Zone” Matters

The Science of Flow- Why Getting “In the Zone” Matters

This week an amazing group of professionals gathered at Claremont Graduate College for the Western Positive Psychology Association’s conference delving into Evidence-Based Applications in Positive Psychology. I was lucky to present 2 sessions.

 10 Years of Positive Education discussed the top 10 mistakes my team at the Institute of Positive Education sees as they reflect on our decade of delivering positive education and what successes ensued once we learned from our mistakes (a little growth mindset modelling). In Is Wellbeing Enough? I led a discussion about measurement of wellbeing and its role in organizational psychology (because what gets measured matters!). Presenting to such an engaged group of Positive Psychology experts certainly had me feeling in the flow which was another focus of the day- recognizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – “Father of Flow” and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management who will be retiring at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year.  Mike shared his story beginning with reflections on how his family’s displacement post WW2 led to a serendipitous meeting of Carl Jung where the seeds of his passion for psychology were planted. He also touched on his hope and perspectives for the Future of Positive Psychology. This post will delve into the science of flow and why it impacts wellbeing.

According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 states of engagement. We know that engaged living is a predictor of wellbeing, life satisfaction, and enjoyment at school or work.

A flow experience has nine characteristics:

  1. What you are doing balances challenge with skill level. Like Goldilocks, the task cannot be too hard or too simple- there is a sweet spot of difficult but not too difficult that encourages flow and is just right.
  2. The task allows for some level of direct and immediate feedback- when walking a balance beam your feedback is either falling off, staying on, or almost falling and then recovering. The feedback is part of the process.
  3. There is a clear goal.
  4. Action and awareness of action are merging. You are able to participate and reflect on your participation almost simultaneously.
  5. You are absorbed in the task. There is engagement and there is not distraction.
  6. You have a sense of personal control. You are impacting the outcome with your effort in a palpable way.
  7. Your lose any self-consciousness. You are not thinking about how others respond to what you are doing, you are just doing.
  8. Time seems to either stand still or pass quickly. There is a warped sense of noticing the passage of time in a positive way.
  9. The task itself is intrinsically rewarding. You aren’t there for the medal or gold star, you are there because the activity that gets you to the medal is important.


When people talk about flow state, they often use terms like “in the zone”, “total absorption”, “feeling at one” or “peak performance”. As  Csikszentmihalyi said in his book Finding Flow.

” Contrary to what we usually believe, the best movements in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times…The best moments usually occur is a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.”


What happens to Your Brain  When You Are In a Flow State?

  1. Transient hypofrontality– the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest and other parts and functions of our brain to become more predominant (like creativity)
  2. Dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex quiets– This is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions such as impulse control
  3. Medial pre-frontal cortex becomes highly active
  4. The neurochemistry of flow floods your body with performance enhancing chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, serotonin allowing for amplified learning, motivation, and creativity.

Often thought of as a solitary experience, we now know that flow can be experienced together. In fact the flow experience is quite contagious- when we see flow happening on the soccer pitch or at a musical performance, we get a bit of the beneficial chemicals for ourselves.

Interestingly. even though most people would might prefer leisure to work, people experience flow 54% while working compared to 18% at play according to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies.

Want More Flow?

  • Minimize distractions
  • Seek feedback on your performance
  • Have clear goals
  • Find the sweet spot of challenge and skill
  • Reflect on when and where you feel flow most
  • Give yourself time- rushing is a flow-blocker

I’m compiling a list of activities that seem most connected to flow. Send me yours and I will add it:

dance     tennis     swimming     horseback riding     drawing     singing     tennis    playing an instrument     public speaking     juggling




Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.

Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and cognition12(2), 231-256.

Teachers as Influencers/ Students as Followers- Is This The New Student/Teacher Relationship?

Teachers as Influencers/ Students as Followers- Is This The New Student/Teacher Relationship?

According to organizational leadership expert Ira Chalieff, the best way to view the leadership relationship is through the lens of influencer/follower. This makes sense in the workplace, but could it also work in an education setting? Could teachers be influencers and students followers?

Schools condition students to obey. Expulsion for nonconformity is a very real threat.  According to Chalieff “the conditioning begins at an age when children are still utterly dependent on their parents for survival and experience considerable anxiety about the consequences of not obeying. Our institutions play on this anxiety and, wittingly or not, reinforce it until followers often do become the timid creatures we emotionally reject identifying with.” Children need to be taught to attend but do we want children who pay attention because they are curious and excited to learn or do we want children who see the end goal as sitting still and quiet and behaving well?

Much of our early conditioning about leaders takes place in a school setting. Students experience a class where they are held responsible for their behaviour but teachers, administrators, and other adults are not seen being held responsible for theirs. The power of this early sets students up to believe contradicting or questioning a leader is not even an option. How can educators use their leadership to model being a good follower too?


What do Educators Need to Model?

  1. Self-Awareness in a teacher means both the ability to see yourself accurately as well as to know how your students see you. It also means not assuming you know what it’s like to be a student today.
  2. Clear and Effective Communication Finding the sweet spot between lecturing and listening allows students to feel as though participants in and not recipients of education.
  3. Open-Minded Thinking kids today love to think outside the box and the future will need flexible thinkers. Allow students to explore alternate solutions, let them learn from mistakes. Teach them to connect the dots, not just to collect the dots as Seth Godin says in his podcast.
  4. Lead by Example There is no room for “do what I say, not what I do.” If you want respect, show respect. If you want grit and resilience, show children how you bounce back from failure.


Teaching Pupils to be Courageous Followers

A courageous follower has a clear internal vision while being attracted to a leader who embodies a manifestation of their goals- translation, kids want a teacher who models achieving the things they see as important. It may not be your role as Humanities teacher, but rather your awesome sense of style or the boxing work out you love that is you best way to connect. Note: APA citation or rote memorization are rarely on this list. You are being compared to YouTube millionaires who are 23 years old. You don’t have to have a YouTube Channel or 20,000 Instagram followers but you should learn the language these influencers use- it works for a reason!

When a student steps into the role of courageous follower, they have a small level of autonomy while remaining fully accountable for their actions. They concede certain authority to a leader (like schedule and curriculum) but they feel like partners in learning rather than the subordinate in a dominant/subordinate relationship.

Courageous followership by definition means performing two polar opposite roles somewhat simultaneously: implementer and challenger of the leader’s ideas. Schools have yet to find consistent ways to encourage students to push the boundaries respectfully.

There is also a massive challenge to teens- they want to be part of the “in group” and yet the individuation required to challenge the beliefs of the group and its leadership is what makes for success.

This is where social media influencers connect with students in a way you might want to learn.

  1. Teens love swag. Give them a little something, it goes a LONG WAY in relationship development.
  2. Teens hate to be told what they “should” or “should not” do or think. Instead ask them to comment, like or share just like a social media campaign.
  3. Relate it to their life. My son asked his math teacher why what they were learning in 10th grade was important. The math teacher answered, “It will all come together in 11th grade”. Epic fail, Not only did the teacher not answer my son’s question, he failed to connect math to real life when a kid actually cared.

An influencer is more powerful than and educator. Think back to when you were in school. Most of us can identify 1 or 2 teachers who had a powerful impact on our lives. More often than not, this impact is not at all related to curriculum or content but how that teacher made us feel or what they inspired us to think. They might have illuminated a bias or encouraged perspective-taking. Maybe they listened or dared us to think bigger. Those teachers are the real influencers. In closing, teachers might want to take this lesson from influencer marketing:

“Engagement is the new impressions. It matters as much, if not more, than someone’s reach.”


Engage your students in a way that makes them want to keep showing up. I’d love you to share examples of how you and your school are doing this in the comment section.

Who’s Crazy About Your Child at School?

Who’s Crazy About Your Child at School?

“In order to develop normally, a child needs the enduring irrational involvement of one or more adults in care of and in joint activity with that child.  In short, somebody has got to be crazy about that kid.” ~Brofenbrenner

Parenting is hard. Kids don’t come with a manual and what works well for one is absolutely wrong for another. It can become even trickier when kids hit school. Educators do have training and experience but not with your child. Here are a few suggestions about how to navigate parenting your school-aged student in a way that best supports their strengths and sets them up for a positive experience.

Take the lead. I suggest a short (no novels please!) email explaining what you think is useful for your child’s teacher to know in order to successfully form a relationship with your child. Mine look something like this:

Welcome to team Maddox! We are excited that Maddox is in your class and wanted you to know a few things about him that might be helpful.

  •  Maddox is a popular kid who is also a successful athlete, you might not notice that he can be highly sensitive to criticism 
  • Maddox has a massive sense of justice which can be both a strength and a weakness (as we all know life isn’t always fair)
  • praise is the best way to reward Maddox
  • Maddox has an autoimmune disease and may be absent when it flares up. He is comfortable speaking with you about this.
  • Maddox’s strengths are loyalty, kindness, perseverance, and hard work


Don’t helicopter or snowplow. We’ve all been tempted to solve all the problems for our children before they happen; flying on the edges of their life and swooping in (like a helicopter) to save the day.  It’s easy to believe that keeping your child free of stress and adversity means they are having a wonderful childhood. Research has shown this is just not true. When a parent bulldozes (or snowplows) any obstacle that comes toward their child, the child does not learn effort, perseverance, resilience or how to fail.

Remember, context matters.  You only know your child at home.You know more about the strengths and challenges historically. For moms and dads sending their child to school for the first time it’s important to remember you know how they behave at home, or maybe in a daycare setting but this isn’t always how they behave at school. My chatterbox, Tygre, was so quiet on her visiting day at our school that the other children all asked me “can she talk?” when I picked her up. Other kids who may challenge more boundaries at home are rule followers in a classroom setting.

You are all on the same team, why not speak the same language. In positive education we use the language of strengths- character strengths. Research has shown that when a community all understands the language of strengths, students flourish. (Lavy, 2018) I highly recommend reading The Strengths Switch- How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Lea Waters.

  Advocate for your child. Teachers are busy. Not just busy- they have overcrowded classrooms that they resource themselves while delivering curriculum in a way that must compete with iPhones and YouTube in order to stay relevant and engaging. In your child’s career as a student, they will run into a teacher who is a bad match for their learning style. Two simple suggestions that can help your child to thrive when an instructor isn’t a good match:

  1. Check that your own bias isn’t impacting your child. My first son, Maddox, had a social studies teacher who was a really bad match for his learning style. When his brother Braxton landed in the same class 4 years later, my knee-jerk reaction was to ask for a switch. Instead I zipped my lips, didn’t mention the history to Braxton and let him decide how he felt about this teacher. Turns out, he got along well in her class and was motivated by the exact same style that had been demotivating for his brother.
  2. Find another teacher on campus who can fill the void. If you drew the short straw for math teachers, find a tutor or education assistant or a sport coach who happens to love math who can model love of math for  your child.

*If the match is causing your child to lose sleep, to feel like they aren’t smart or to start avoiding school by faking sickness then it’s time to suggest a change. By change I am not suggesting a change of teacher. Talk to the principal or school counselor and ask for their advice or suggestions. They have a wealth of educational psychology knowledge that can make all the difference! Change your child’s mindset. Change the teacher’s opinion of your child. Change the seating in the classroom. Work together until you find something that changes your child’s experience from negative to positive. (Have an open mind- solutions don’t happen overnight but they do happen!)

To circle back to Brofenbrenner’s quote, ask yourself who at school has noticed the unique and wonderful attributes that others might not see in your child. The answer will point you to your best allies on a path forward that includes finding other role models, mentors, and positive educational experiences that all lead to your child thriving at school. And at the end of the day, that’s all most parents can ask for!