Ever had that wonderful, timeless feeling that arises when you’re absorbed in a challenging task, one that stretches your abilities but doesn’t exceed them? Pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this state ‘flow’. Countless studies have shown that flow is highly rewarding and usually provokes feelings of joy afterwards. Little researched until now, however, is the idea of ‘social flow’, which can arise when a group of people are absorbed together in a challenging task. In a new study, Charles Walker finds that social flow is associated with more joy than solitary flow – ‘that doing it together is better than doing it alone’.
An initial survey asked 95 student participants to describe experiences they’d had of solitary and social flow and to rate how joyful these occasions were. On average, social flow activities, including singing in a choir and hiking up a mountain with an outdoor club, were associated with more joy than solitary flow activities including painting with watercolours and cycling alone over rolling hills.
Two further studies delved deeper. Thirty students played a ten-minute bat and ball game with a partner, and on their own against a wall. The main task was to keep the ball off the ground. The rules were modified according to results from pilot work to ensure that the solitary game was as challenging as the version in pairs. Despite the two game versions being equally challenging, the dyad version was rated by participants as being more joyful and provoked more emotions usually associated with flow, including feeling alive, focused and cheerful.
In a final study, 48 participants played another bat and ball game. This time everyone was in pairs but some participants played a ‘high interdependent’ version in which they had to pass the ball to their own partner before their partner hit it over the net to the other team. The challenge for the two pairs was to cooperate in keeping the ball off the ground. By contrast, participants in a ‘low interdependent’ version had to hit the ball back and forth with their partner, again with the task of keeping the ball of the ground as long as possible.
The key finding is that the participants in the high interdependent condition were rated as more joyful than participants in the low interdependence condition, based on self-report and on scores given by trained observers who watched their facial expressions and body language.
Crucially, the high interdependent participants were still rated as more joyful even when the analysis was restricted to just those participants from each condition who’d found their respective tasks equally challenging and requiring of skill. In other words, with ‘flow’ kept as constant as possible across the two conditions, the more interdependent version of the game still appeared to provoke more joy.
Charles Walker said more research is needed to uncover why more social tasks lead to a form of flow that provokes more joy. However, he surmised that the contagious nature of emotion could be one reason. Another factor could be that people working together actually raise the challenge of a task – this would certainly tally with previous research showing that groups take more risks than individuals. In the context of this study, high interdependent participants were seen raising the challenge by passing the ball behind their backs or under their legs.
Walker said future research should find a way to directly measure flow and that the ultimate purpose of social flow needs to be explored. ‘Much work remains to be done at all levels to further describe and explain the interesting and intriguing phenomenon of social flow,’ he said.
Walker, C. (2010). Experiencing flow: Is doing it together better than doing it alone? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 (1), 3-11 DOI: 10.1080/17439760903271116