June 8, 2023

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Yale’s Science of Well-Being Course Helped Me Find My Flow State

5 min read
Yale's Science of Well-Being Course Helped Me Find My Flow State

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Over a year ago, I enrolled in Yale’s free (and most popular) online class, The Science of Well-Being. It debunks myths about what we think makes us happy and uses science to help us build healthy habits.

One of the key takeaways is that something positive psychology calls your “flow state” is impactful for well-being, from your search for a good job to finding hobbies that fulfill you. After taking the course, I eventually felt inspired to start Pilates — and have been doing it for three months straight. Here’s why it’s made me a happier, better person.

What your “flow state” means for happiness

“Flow state” is essentially being in the zone. When you’re engrossed in an activity that’s challenging but also doable and engaging (like learning a language or meditating), you are in your flow state.

A screenshot of The Science of Well-Being course by Dr. Laurie Santos. The photo is divided into two parts. On the right, Santos is seen speaking. On the left, there's a text definition of "flow", which is similar to being "in the zone" in positive psychology.

In the Science of Well-Being course, Santos explains “flow” and how it contributes to personal happiness.

Mara Leighton/Coursera

“Research suggests that flow states feel really good,” said Dr. Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor and the creator of the Science of Well-Being course. “They make time pass in an enjoyable but quick way; you’re really present, and there’s lots of research suggesting that anytime we do things where we’re more present, we enjoy that activity more.” To learn more, you can take Santos’ course or pick up the book “Flow” by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

When it comes to happiness, flow states are a great bang for your buck. However, the startup cost is usually higher than it is for passive activities such as scrolling through Twitter. In The Science of Well-Being, Santos addresses how our brain hasn’t evolved to enable happiness: We may crave social media more than new hobbies or exercise, though the latter improve our well-being in the long term.

Learning how important tough, doable activities are to well-being, I picked an activity that combines other happiness heavyweights, such as social connection, meditation, and healthy practices: Pilates.

Tapping into your flow state

Over the last three months, I’ve completed 75 Pilates classes, almost all of them in a row.

Screenshot from a pilates app that shows 75 completed classes and an upcoming class.

I’ve completed 75 Pilates classes (almost in a row) because it really does feel good to prioritize challenging, doable activities.

Mara Leighton

Taking Pilates classes has been the perfect storm: It regularly gets me into the engrossed concentration of my flow state and relies upon skills that I can improve (and therefore enjoy more deeply) over time. 

But what I love most is its overlap with meditation. During Pilates, I spend an hour out of my head and in the moment. All I do is show up to the studio (or the mat on my floor), listen to an instructor, and do my best. It’s not unusual for me to leave class and realize I haven’t thought about anything besides breathing, stretching, or holding a position the entire time. 

The whole process feels similar to savoring to me, another key aspect of improving well-being. According to Santos, savoring is “the simple act of stepping out of your experience to review it and really appreciate it while it’s happening.” It can boost our mood by increasing our gratitude, by “[making] us thankful for the experiences we’re having as we’re having them.”

The mental impact of flow state activities

I started my “flow state” habit as a generally happy person, but three months after starting Pilates, my happiness feels so much greater and more consistent. (The Science of Well-Being gives you tools to quantify your happiness over time, which can help you track any major improvements). 

A hand adjusting springs on the Pilates reformer machine. A blue and red spring are hooked onto the machine.

Over time, I’ve gradually learned about the science of Pilates and how to add or pull back given how I feel that day. Typically, a blue spring is light (it’ll test your abs) and red is medium (not too heavy, not too light).

Mara Leighton

After Santos’ course, I understood that perfection shouldn’t be the goal of trying an activity — it’s your own concentration and effort that’s the reward. With this mindset, I didn’t feel guilty or bad because I wasn’t good at something in Pilates; I enjoyed trying. Plus, from repeated practice, I gradually got better at it.

This habit has helped me begin craving flow state activities more often. Right now, I’m on track to take a Pilates anatomy course and eventually hope to get certified to teach Pilates myself.

Woman wearing a mask and sitting on pilates reformer machine, taking a selfie.

Now, I’m enrolling in a Pilates anatomy course (definitely a new interest) to better understand how my body works and what it’s supposed to be doing in a Pilates class.

Mara Leighton

I haven’t completely cut out the “junk food” activities (as Santos referred to them), like rewatching “The Office” or scrolling through Instagram. But I definitely prioritize more enriching activities than before. This past weekend, I decided to leave Sunday free specifically for flow state activities that bring me the greatest joy, like sitting outside reading a completely captivating novel (“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin). It was so relaxing and recharging that, come Monday, I felt more focused at work.

Doing Pilates every day doesn’t have to be your flow state activity. It could be anything — reading, writing, learning Spanish, gardening, guitar-playing. Mine not only makes me feel great in the moment but also encourages me to try other challenging things with a steep learning curve. It’s been liberating to let go of perfection and prioritize growth in multiple areas of my life. I’m a much better, happier person because of it. 

For more happiness tips, I highly recommend enrolling in Yale’s free (and relatively short) online course.

One of Yale’s most popular classes ever (and a Business Insider favorite), this class debunks some of the most common myths about happiness and teaches you how to authentically improve your well-being.

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