How a State of Flow Can Aid Your COVID Well-Being

woman playing guitar

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Key Takeaways

  • A state of "flow" is when you lose yourself in a particular activity—one that is relatively challenging and lets you monitor your progress toward a specific goal.
  • Many people have reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.
  • Researchers found that people who achieved a state of flow felt less lonely and more positive during stay-at-home orders.

For several months, we’ve been told what we need to keep ourselves—and each other—safe from COVID-19: Face masks, a constant supply of hand sanitizer, and more personal space than most of us are accustomed to, for starters. You can add patience and resilience to the list too—they are undoubtedly needed for getting through stay-at-home orders and coping with restrictions in all areas of life.

But there might be something else to add to our toolbox: a state of flow. New research suggests that this may be the remedy for the emotional pressures of the pandemic era. More than 5,000 people who were quarantined in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak took part in the study, which was published in PLOS One in November.

The Study Findings

Participants answered online survey questions about how many times in the previous week they’d felt utterly absorbed by whatever they were doing and to what extent they’d felt simultaneously stimulated and challenged—both important elements of flow. Researchers found that those who achieved a state of flow reported decreased loneliness and higher levels of positive emotion, even though they were staying home alone during their period of quarantine.

Those who were under lockdown for longer suffered more of a negative emotional impact. However, participants who experienced high levels of flow tended to cope better during the additional quarantine time.

What Is Flow, Exactly–and How Do We Find It?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the concept of mental “flow” to refer to stretches of time when someone is entirely focused on whatever they’re doing.

“Flow is the feeling of being ‘in the zone’—completely absorbed in an enjoyable activity,” says Kate Sweeny, PhD, co-author of the PLOS One study and a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside. “Time flies by, and you barely notice your own thoughts or experiences outside of the activity you're doing.”

Sweeny says the kinds of activities that are most likely to produce a state of flow are ones that challenge us the right amount (i.e. they’re not too easy or not too hard) and that allow us to track our progress toward a specific goal. “Video games are custom-made to create flow,” she adds. “But almost anything can be a flow activity if you pay attention to the level of challenge and note your progress along the way.”

Kate Sweeny, PhD

Flow is good for our well-being under pretty much any circumstance, but it may be particularly helpful during stressful periods of uncertainty, when we just want time to pass a bit faster and to mute our worrisome thoughts.

— Kate Sweeny, PhD

Hobbies like playing music, cooking, painting, knitting, and gardening are all potential flow-inducers. Athletic pursuits, such as playing a sport, doing yoga, or going for a run, can also put people into a flow state.

And you don’t have to be particularly talented at any of those things to enjoy the benefits of flow. “The thing I love about flow is that anyone can experience it,” Sweeny says. “You don't have to practice, you don't have to learn anything new; you just have to put a little effort into challenging yourself and tracking your progress.”

It’s important to note that binge-watching a TV series or losing yourself in your favorite movie, while enjoyable, isn’t considered to be the same as being in a state of flow because it’s not an active state.

Flow and COVID-19

With two in five Americans struggling with mental health concerns and substance abuse during the pandemic (per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), now seems like as good a time as any to try to find our flow—although you don't have to be under lockdown or in quarantine to reap the rewards.

“Flow is good for our well-being under pretty much any circumstance, but it may be particularly helpful during stressful periods of uncertainty, when we just want time to pass a bit faster and to mute our worrisome thoughts,” Sweeny notes.

Elissa Epel, PhD

Engagement in activities at home may represent people who have more opportunities and interest in the activities they can do at home, and so in that way it is not surprising that it is a direct predictor of well-being while stuck at home, during shelter in place.

— Elissa Epel, PhD

"It is lovely to know that flow is protective to our well-being," says Elissa Epel, PhD, a professor and vice chair in the department of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. 

Although the PLOS One study findings are still fairly new, and researchers only established an association—not a cause-and-effect relationship—between flow and better mental health, experts agree that flow may be a powerful defense against the emotional burden of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sweeny K, Rankin K, Cheng X, et al. Flow in the time of COVID-19: Findings from China. PLOS One. 2020;15(11):e0242043. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0242043

  2. Salisbury JH, Penda T. Reconciling Csikszentmihalyi's broader flow theory: with meaning and value in digital games. ToDIGRA. 2016;2(2):55-77. doi:10.26503/todigra.v2i2.34

  3. Czeisler M, Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic—United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69:1049-57. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.