Grit and Flow as alternating Stages on the Road to Achievement?

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop. So here we go…

Grit and Flow as alternating Stages on the Road to Achievement?

Seligman (2011) posits that engagement, for instance, by regularly entering into a state of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989), and seeking and realizing achievement (Wiegand & Geller, 2005) on and off the job are two constitutive elements of well-being. These concepts are represented by the letters E and A in the acronym PERMA, Seligman´s current outline of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) characterizes Flow as a state of optimal experience. The most important features of Flow are effortless attention, absence of time awareness, and absence of emotion. Seemingly contradictory, Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) posit that Grit, characterized as a passion and persistence for long-term goals and the associated exercise of self-control (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005), are key predictors of sustainable achievement. In this paper, I will argue that experiencing Flow and exerting Grit may be alternating stages on the same road to accomplishment – much in the same way that in- and exhaling are interchanging phases of the process of breathing.

At first glance, even though both concepts are perceived as pathways to achievement, Flow and Grit do have characteristics that seem to be somewhat incompatible. Grit is theorized as a stable character trait that does not require an immediate positive feedback loop. Individuals high in Grit are capable of sustaining determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity (Duckworth et al., 2007). Their passion for long-term objectives is the principal factor that provides the energy required to keep on track amidst challenges and set-backs. Using one´s Grit may be gratifying in the end because it helps us to reach long-term goals – but is doesn´t necessarily have to feel good while still being “on the way”. Often, using Grit is the opposite of the characteristic of effortlessness. In fact, it can lead people to “torture” themselves for the “greater good”.

On the other hand, Flow is a state that is “easy” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). While it is important to have feelings of potential control and mastery in order to experience Flow, it does not feel like it is necessary to exert control – things seem to take care of themselves. In fact, most people report that feeling nothing at all is a typical characteristic of being “in the Flow”. Positive feelings only come after the task at hand is done. In addition, experiencing Flow is dependent on regular task-related feedback. It is attained most easily when a person´s skills and the challenge at hand are of equal magnitude.

I propose that the relationship of skill level and the difficulty of the task at hand may be the connection between both concepts. Flow is typically depicted as the optimal level between boredom and anxiety:

Flow Channel

Figure 1. The Flow channel (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 70).

It seems likely that gritty persons are typically capable of overcoming the anxiety of facing challenges that seem too difficult at first. They perceive obstacles as challenges, and by conquering these challenges, the continuously expand their skill level. This, in turn, will enable them to potentially experience Flow in more difficult situations in the future. Thereby, the gratifying experience of Flow may be the reward for having pushed one´s boundaries just a little further.

To close this essay with an analogy: in my opinion, the relationship between Grit and Flow resembles the interplay of Yin and Yang in Taoism. Yin is the female, soft, or yielding principle. It can be likened to being in Flow. It´s letting go without losing control, it´s doing without doing. On the other hand, exerting Grit can be likened to Yang: it´s the male, hard, or penetrating principle. It´s holding on to preserve control, it´s doing by taking action. These principles seem to be contradictory – but in fact, they are complementary.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815-822.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper-Perennial.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
Wiegand, D. M., & Geller, E. S. (2005). Connecting positive psychology and organizational behavior management: Achievement motivation and the power of positive reinforcement. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24(1-2), 3-25.



Just found out that I wasn´t the first person on planet Earth to have the brilliant abovementioned thoughts (What was I thinking anyway…). Here´s a very instructive blog post along similar lines by the name of Grand Unified Theory of Mastery.

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