Activities: Going with the Flow

By Debbie Hommel, ACC/MC/EDU, CTRS

Happiness.  A good life.  A meaningful life.  What does it truly mean to be happy and engaged in the world around us?  What is the measure of happiness?  How can we tell if someone is content and having a good quality of life?  With increasing emphasis on person centered care and the individualized needs of the resident, the activity professional is challenged to ensure every resident is having a good life.  But what is a good life?  How can we tell if the elder is enjoying our programs or is truly content to be a spectator in life?  An interesting concept which may assist not only the activity professional but all care givers who work with the frail elderly is the concept of FlowFlow is an individual mental state where one becomes fully immersed in the task at hand and maintains an energized focus and full involvement in the activity.

The concept of flow was proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor and author of many books on the topic of flow. Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s leading researchers in a branch of psychology called positive psychology.  Positive psychology studies “the strengths and virtues which enable individuals and communities to thrive”.  Positive psychologists are actively studying measurable components of what makes a Pleasant Life, a Good Life and a Meaningful Life.  Understanding these concepts is exactly what the activity professional needs in order to validate and articulate the positive outcomes associated with resident/client engagement in activity and recreation programming.

So, how does one achieve flow? Csikszentmihalyi defined nine factors which contribute to achieving the state of flow.   The following is a discussion of how the activity professional can incorporate flow factors into programming.

  1. Clear goals. The expectations of the group, activity or task need to be clearly presented.  The goals of the group have to be attainable and aligned with the skills and abilities of the participants.  Basic Activities 101 teaches us about having defined objectives for our groups and the importance of adaptation.   So this first factor is an easy component to work into our approach.
  2. Concentration and focus. Having a specific topic or task allows for greater concentration.  Rather than try to accomplish too much or focus on multiple tasks, it is suggested to focus more deeply on less.  This is an excellent lesson for the activity professional and may contribute to greater success within our programs.  We often try to meet the needs of the many and practice non-stop multi-tasking.   Our emphasis on accomplishing as much we can may be inhibiting our ability to truly engage in the task at hand.
  3. Loss of self-consciousness. To achieve flow, individuals need to feel a sense of freedom in the participation.  As group leaders, we participate in the task or activities we conduct.  Our ability to participate without self-consciousness is a catalyst to the elder being able to participate freely as well.
  4. Distorted sense of time. To maintain a sense of order and minimize chaos, activity departments and health care centers have long functioned on schedules and calendars.  The activity professional keeps one eye on the clock while conducting programs or setting up for the next.  Keeping a “handle” on time is a common concern and can limit becoming fully immersed in the task at hand.  To achieve flow, we may need to focus on spontaneity and not worry so much about “time”.  For this to occur, all staff will need to adopt an attitude which will allow adjustments to schedules and daily routines.
  5. Feedback. The success or failure of the task/activity needs to be acknowledged and addressed.  Successes need to be celebrated and failures need to be acknowledged.  It’s easy to give positive feedback but what about those less than successful programs?  Feedback or discussions about these activities or tasks are just as important as the celebration of successes.  The camaraderie shared amongst those individuals having “one of those days” can be just as effective as the connection achieved during a shared good day.
  6. Balance between activity level and challenge. The task cannot be too easy or too hard.  The activity professional learns quickly to adapt to the various levels of functioning involved in programs.  We must be wary of making things too easy as everyone enjoys a challenge.  However, we want to ensure successful participation as well.  These are basic skills of every activity professional.
  7. Control. In order to achieve flow, the individual needs a sense of personal control.  The activity department has long fostered decision making, personal choice and autonomy.  As activity leaders, we strive to empower our elders in group process and participation.
  8. Intrinsic rewards. Participation should feel good. If the individual is able to attain some level of satisfaction physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or socially, it will engage the individual more fully.  The activity professional’s challenge is to identify the internal motivators of each person, as that may vary.  In the basic activity training programs, much emphasis is placed on the therapeutic benefits and outcomes associated with participation in programming.  These benefits provide intrinsic rewards to each participant.
  9. Absorbed in the activity. Becoming lost in the task at hand and being able to eliminate all other distractions is a strong indicator of flow.  The activity professional can set the elder up for success by fostering a trust relationship, eliminating distractions and creating a supportive environment.

Some of these factors of flow may be easier to foster than others.  Some of these factors may simply be a matter of adjusting how we look at things.  You and your resident/clients may have already experienced flow and you thought you were “just having a good day”.   The activity profession needs to explore these new concepts and integrate them into daily practice.   As the emphasis on quality of life grows, we will be called upon to articulate specific means to create opportunities for “the good life” for all who reside in our communities.

“Our lives are not determined by what happens to us but by how we react to what happens, not by what life brings to us, but by the attitude we bring to life. A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes. It is a catalyst, a spark that creates extraordinary results.” – Anon