Engagement – the E in PERMA+

Engagement is that experience you sometimes have when you are totally absorbed in a task, and you lose track of time, you lose your sense of yourself, you stop worrying and thinking about the big and little things that usually fill up your mind. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Mee-high Cheek-sent-me-high”) developed the concept of “flow” or “the flow state”, and if you’re feeling this, it’s usually a sign that you’re working on a task that is using your highest strengths and capabilities. This joyful immersion in an activity occurs when you are doing something we care about doing well, and which is a good match for your abilities, intelligence, skills and emotional connection.

A graph showing the relationship between Ability and Challenge

Image credit: http://www.globoforce.com/gfblog/2013/happiness-flow-and-how-to-be-a-better-leader/

In order for a flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You must feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion – a complete loss of self-consciousness – however, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating!


People who report a greater number of engagement experiences tend to have more positive emotions, higher performance, better concentration, improved self-esteem, and tend to be strongly committed to meaningful, long term goals.  Whether it is playing a musical instrument, practicing a sport, getting lost in an interesting project, making art, dancing, reading, sailing or any other skilled, enjoyable activity, the flow state involves a loss of self-consciousness – it’s no longer “me doing the activity”, it’s just “being the activity”.

A runner in flow state

Image credit: http://www.runnersworld.com/racing/locking-into-flow

Part of the challenge of engagement is that the activities most likely to promote engagement and flow, usually take time and energy to start doing. It’s easier to sit on the couch and watch TV, or scroll Facebook, than it is to change into sports gear and go outside, or pull out some sheet music and sit up with your instrument, or get your oil paints ready to keep working on your canvas. If you’ve ever said longingly “oh yeah, I used to do _______ all the time and I loved it, I just don’t seem to find the time any more,” this is your desire for engagement speaking.

So, given that engagement experiences are rewarding in and of themselves, and also bring along a host of other benefits if completed regularly, what are some ways to boost engagement on a regular basis?

It seems that there are no shortcuts to engagement. It really is about finding the activities that use your highest strengths, and then putting your strengths to work.

For those who already recognise the activity that easily puts them into flow, it’s about managing your life to make sure you have the opportunity to do more of that thing – is it surfing, running, cooking, gardening, sketching, writing? Find time to do more of it. It’s not about being world-class at any of these activities, it’s just making sure that you’re doing them and evolving your skills as you do.

If you don’t already know what kind of activities naturally put you in flow, there are a few steps to take. Firstly, you need to identify your strengths – what are the things you’re good at, that you naturally like to do? What do other people always recognise and admire in you? There are many Strengths assessments online that can give you a sense of your self-assessed capabilities.

Then, match these strengths with activities that can tip you into flow state. Is your top strength “appreciation of beauty and excellence”? Then find ways to regularly be exposed to outstanding natural or artistic beauty, meditate on it and allow it to take your breath away. Is your top strength “teamwork”? Then flow activities are likely to involve coordinated effort with others: getting a band together with friends, playing on a indoor cricket team, or even playing online games in a group at LAN parties. And then, once you’ve identified something that is likely to engage you, practice it, a lot, and for long enough that the basic skills become automatic and you can start to use your highest strengths.

The same ideas can be applied at work. Identify your strengths and then find ways to use them in your workplace. Seligman uses the example of a waitress who disliked her job until she found a way to use her strength of “social intelligence” to attempt to make each customer’s interaction with her a highlight in their day – and it transformed how she thought about her work. Is your top strength “creativity”? Devote 20 minutes each day to trying to improve processes in your workplace through new and inventive means. Is it “zest”? Aim to impart some positive energy to all of your coworkers, or customers, in your daily interactions with them. Is it “spirituality”? Begin each day with the intention to dedicate your efforts in the service of your beliefs. As you bring your highest strengths to bear in the workplace, your work will become more engaging.

Boosting Engagement requires more attention and time devoted to it than some other aspects of PERMA+, but the rewards, in terms of a life well lived, are significant.


Want to know more about how to achieve a state of engagement? A psychologist can help you work out what your top strengths are and support you to build more flow into your life.

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