Investing psychic (not material) energy: flow experiences and sustainable prosperity
As the negative well-being effects of materialistic lifestyles continue to be documented, it is crucial that we start to uncover ways of living well that do not rely so heavily on material inputs. Summarising her recent journal article with Birgitta Gatersleben and Tim Jackson, Amy Isham considers how choosing to invest our attention and effort into the creation of flow experiences might be able to help us to achieve sustainable prosperity.
As consumer cultures continue to fuel unsustainable patterns of consumption that yield poor returns in terms of well-being, finding ways of living that can aid both the quest for personal well-being and environmental sustainability becomes a key area of research. Flow experiences were proposed as a means of fulfilled living within environmental limits by the Hungarian positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, over 10 years ago. However, whilst considerable research has since been able to document the positive effects of flow experiences on personal well-being, no proper examination of the environmental impacts of flow-conducive activities had yet taken place. Therefore, in our recent paper, Birgitta Gatersleben, Tim Jackson, and I sought to not only test the relationship between the frequency and intensity of flow experienced by the members of 500 US families and their personal well-being, but also the association between the extent to which an activity provided flow and its estimated environmental impact.
Flow describes an intrinsically rewarding state of total immersion in an activity. It is said to be most likely to occur when both the challenges present and the individuals skill set are matched and at a high level. Thus, the individual feels stretched to perform at the top of their abilities yet retains a sense of control. As during flow an individual chooses to grant all of their attention to the task at hand, they thus stop perceiving any barriers between themselves and the activity, which gives rise to a feeling of effortless movement. It also means that an individual is no longer preoccupied with their everyday worries, fears of judgement or failure, or even time.
Such large investments of attention, or what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘psychic energy’, into an activity is the reason why flow experiences are suspected to be associated with lower environmental, or material, inputs. To demonstrate this point I like to use the example of watching television versus writing poetry. Watching television has been shown to be unlikely to produce flow. This is because, whilst significant amounts of external energy and resources are needed to produce and power the television set, very little mental effort is needed on behalf of the viewer. Writing poetry, on the other hand, is considered to be more supportive of flow. This activity only requires a pen and paper in terms of material inputs, but the mental demands on the writer are much greater. On their own, the pen and paper do not provide enjoyment. Accordingly, a by-product of an activity requiring large investments of psychic energy seems to be that it places fewer demands on external, physical energy.
Our analysis produced three key sets of findings that are relevant for understanding whether flow experiences can aid progress towards sustainable prosperity. Firstly, we found that individuals reporting the most intense flow experiences also tended to have the greatest well-being when assessed at the time in which the flow experience was occurring. When asked to recall their well-being over the past week, those individuals reporting the most frequent flow experiences tended to recall greater well-being. So flow was associated with greater well-being as expected. Secondly, there was a small negative link between the extent to which individuals reported experiencing flow in an activity and the greenhouse gas emissions that arise per unit of time from carrying out the activity. Therefore flow does appear to have some potential for limiting environmental impact. Finally, we established five categories to represent those groups of activities that appeared to be the most supportive of flow whilst having the lowest environmental impact. These five categories, namely, romantic relationships, religion or spirituality, creative activities, sports and physical exercise, and granting time to others, highlight how we might best spend our time in order to aid transitions towards sustainable prosperity.
Overall then, flow experiences do appear to offer one means of living well, within environmental limits. Of course, it is important to remember that achieving high-flow lifestyles will not be easy; I cannot simply wake up tomorrow morning and decide to experience flow. One must take the time to develop a suitably high level of skill and find the relevant opportunities to partake in the recommended activities, whether this be a sports club or social group. Further, it is not the case that all flow experiences do occur in environmentally-friendly activities and future research will be needed in order to examine how different activities could be interrelated (does engagement in flow-conducive activities also entail participation in a number of less flow-conducive and potentially more environmentally costly activities?) and differ in form across time and social classes. Nevertheless, aiming to increase our reliance on psychic, rather than material, energy would seem to be a good starting point for trying to enhance both psychological and ecological well-being.