Flowing into Ikigai: The Symbiosis of Purpose and Flow State

Nick and Sue Langley explore the connection between experiencing a state of flow and cultivating a heightened sense of ikigai.

Being highly engaged in what you do

Nick: Interestingly, one of the first papers I've found on ikigai when I was looking online, I think it was ResearchGate, was related to flow. And it was such a jagged field, complicated piece, I put it aside for a couple of years and then I thought, oh, I should get back on this paper.

It basically wanted to see if ikigai, the feeling of ikigai increased in the flow state. And what they found was there was this connection between flow, ikigai, and sense of coherence, and it was on Tai Chi practitioners.

Basically, they found that the longer these people practice Tai Chi, and the more engaged they were with flow, obviously, the more they felt ikigai. And then they also experienced a sense of coherence and that idea of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaning making of an activity.

Because Tai Chi is obviously quite difficult as you get more advanced, or the subtle movements. So in short, you experience ikigai when you're in flow, but also you experience a sense of life satisfaction after the flow state and you realize, that was awesome, that was very satisfying.

So yeah, ikigai sort of popped up there as well. So that's a module I teach in my own program, based on this paper, so bringing evidence to all these concepts is always exciting.

Sue: What you've just done there, which is so lovely, is help understand that these things are all related. So to your point, if it's coherent, to me, I might increase my sense of meaning. If I'm using my strengths, I might increase my sense of engagement and my connection to what I'm doing. But also, then I feel good.

So I feel good about the fact that I've made a difference, or I've done something meaningful, or I've learned something, or I've grown. So there's a wonderful cohesiveness, I suppose around all of these theories in the way they come together within us as a person.

Nick: Now, I'm going to contradict what we've just talked about, because you always seem in flow. When you're talking, you're very vibrant and happy. And during our six days, you were just awesome, amazing facilitator, you didn't need notes, and everything you could answer. And when you couldn't answer, you say I don’t know but it might mean this.

You seem to be maybe what we could in this kind of low level of flow all the time you really love your work, you're engaged. So when do you actually reach that strict? Let’s call it that strict definition of when your skill level meets a certain challenge where you engage in flow, and does it happen often?

Sue: It's a really good question. I think I'm highly engaged in what I do. So you're absolutely right, I am lucky that I get to use my strengths a lot of the time. Well, when I say lucky, I'm also well aware, I've made some decisions to make that happen as well.

So I do get very engaged in what I do, I love what I do, I get energized by what I do. The moment of flow, to your point, if we stick strictly to those eight components, it absolutely does still happen. And it usually happens when I stretch myself, where I push myself in a certain way. And I'll give you an example.

So each year for the last however many years, I have spoken often about happiness causes conference. And I have to admit, I did freak out the organizer once. I think it was about year two or three, when I said to her, when I speak about happiness causes conference, I have made a decision that I am only ever going to do something I've never done before and I've not prepared for.

And to the first time I did it, it was definitely a bit anxiety provoking. But since then, there are the moments I'm in flow. I had one example when I was in Iceland, last year at the European positive psych conference, I only finished the slides at 8 am, I didn't have them printed out because I didn't have a printer. I basically scan them on my laptop, and then I got on stage at nine o'clock.

And I just thought to myself, okay, whatever slide comes up, I'm just gonna go. And I have to admit, and there's a picture of me as I come off stage, and that's the moment where I came out of flow. And my colleague captured it and you can see by my face that I’m like ‘nailed it.’

But I literally couldn't remember the previous 58 minutes. I was so absorbed. So to your point, because I love what I do. And for a lot of things that I do, I've done them for many years and I've learned more, I tweak things, I stretch things, but I always find little scenarios where I push myself a little bit further every so often that makes me go ‘that was a moment of flow.’ It doesn't always happen but I try and create moments where it can.

Nick: I like this strategy, I might implement it.