Is gardening a flow activity or a mindful activity? This was a debate that I had with fellow Positive Psychologist Kim Furnish recently, and we did not agree. Gardening is an activity enjoyed by many, myself included and I often find myself in flow when gardening. I lose sense of time, I might go out to do some pruning that I think will take half an hour and I come back inside two or three hours later having achieved much more than I originally intended or achieved something completely different to what I originally intended. Whereas Kim says that when she is gardening she is very present and finds it a mindful activity.

This left me wondering whether it is possible for gardening to both a flow state and a mindful state and if so, can these two states exist simultaneously or are they mutually exclusive? Flow involves being completely immersed in an activity and nothing else seems to matter so that you lose self-awareness. Whereas mindfulness involves maintaining self-awareness, it requires being fully present and aware of thoughts, feelings, surroundings and body sensations.

Also, a flow state occurs when the task you are doing provides a certain level of challenge and you have the skills needed to match the challenge. I find gardening offers a level of challenge that keeps me absorbed. When I am gardening or even just out in the garden my mind is curious and engaged. I walk around and look at the plants and reflect on the progress they are making. I’m looking out for new shoots, assessing the pruning that needs to be done, wondering whether the plant would fare better in a different position and when would be the best time to move it. I become very absorbed in the garden and lose self-awareness.

However, Kim says that when she is in the garden she stops and notices things like the plants, butterflies and birds and she feels very present. This experience of stopping and noticing sounds similar to my experience of noticing plants and reflecting on their progress, but there the similarity ends because my attention is taken by the garden and I lose self-awareness which Kim is fully present.

Research from the University of Missouri, Columbia that separates out the absorption element of flow and the control element may help to explain this debate. Absorption refers to being so fully engaged in a task that your actions are effortless and you lose self-awareness. Whereas control refers to the match between challenge and skills. The researchers found that with regard to the absorption element of flow, when participants were instructed to practice mindfulness before playing Tetris, this negatively correlated with the participants’ feelings of being absorbed in the game. However, it did not affect their perception of control within the game. This suggests that flow, or a least the control aspect of flow, can exist simultaneously with mindfulness, but it is less likely that the absorption element can.

So what does this mean for Kim and me? It means that we are both fortunate to experience the positive benefits that come from being in these altered states. We both experience more positive emotions following gardening whether we have been in a flow state or a mindful state.

What is your experience of gardening, does it induce a flow state, a mindful state or something else? Let me know.

Sheldon, K.M., Prentice, M. and Halusic, M. (2014). The Experiential Incompatibility
of Mindfulness and Flow Absorption. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 3,276-283.

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