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Flow at Work and Basic Psychological Needs: Effects on Well‐Being

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Recent conceptual work draws meaningful distinctions between experiential and declarative well-being (Shmotkin, 2005), but little has been done to apply such distinctions in organisational psychology. We use this framework to integrate self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975), leading to hypotheses proposing that flow experiences at work (experiential well-being) lead to declarative well-being outcomes through their influence on the satisfaction of basic psychological needs for competence and autonomy. Findings from a two-week experience sampling study of full-time employees offer support for our hypotheses. This study also shows support for the moderating effect of individual differences in personality on the relationships among flow experiences, need fulfillment, and declarative well-being.
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Flow at Work and Basic Psychological Needs:
Effects on Well-Being
Remus Ilies*
National University of Singapore, Singapore
David Wagner
University of Oregon, USA
Kelly Wilson
Purdue University, USA
Lucia Ceja
IESE Business School, Spain
Michael Johnson
University of Washington, USA
Scott DeRue
University of Michigan, USA
Dan Ilgen
Michigan State University, USA
Recent conceptual work draws meaningful distinctions between experiential
and declarative well-being (Shmotkin, 2005), but little has been done to apply
such distinctions in organisational psychology. We use this framework to inte-
grate self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and flow theory
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1975), leading to hypotheses proposing that flow experien-
ces at work (experiential well-being) lead to declarative well-being outcomes
through their influence on the satisfaction of basic psychological needs for
competence and autonomy. Findings from a two-week experience sampling
study of full-time employees offer support for our hypotheses. This study also
shows support for the moderating effect of individual differences in personal-
ity on the relationships among flow experiences, need fulfillment, and declara-
tive well-being.
* Address for correspondence: Remus Ilies, Department of Management and Organization,
National University of Singapore, Singapore. Email: ilies@nus.edu.sg
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APPLIED PSYCHOLOGY: AN INTERNATIONAL REVIEW, 2017, 66 (1), 3–24
doi: 10.1111/apps.12075
INTRODUCTION
Well-being refers to “optimal psychological functioning and experience”, and
well-being research has included facets such as pleasure, health, and satisfac-
tion (Ryan & Deci, 2001, p. 142). Although affect is typically considered a facet
of well-being, Deci and Ryan (2000) have suggested that well-being is not
merely the enjoyment of positive affect, but also includes a deep sense of well-
ness. Historically, this research has tried to identify “what constitutes the good
life” (Ryan & Deci, 2001, p. 142) at a general level, but recent studies have con-
nected life in general with the work domain (e.g. Heller, Watson, & Ilies, 2006;
Sonnentag & Bayer, 2005), and well-being has been related to a number of
important work outcomes (e.g. job performance, retention, profitability, etc.;
Wright & Huang, 2012).
In addition to examining between-person differences in well-being, our
understanding of employee well-being increasingly relies on dynamic examina-
tions of within-individual variability as it unfolds naturally across time. This is
evidenced by a number of studies adopting longitudinal designs and experienc-
ing sampling methodologies (e.g. Ilies, Aw, & Pluut, 2015; Sonnentag & Ilies,
2011; Xanthopoulou, Bakker, & Ilies, 2012). Research on within-person vari-
ability in employee well-being offers a series of important insights. First, it
takes into consideration temporality—the day-to-day variation in employee
well-being over time. Second, it gives a more fine-grained understanding of
how employee well-being changes and evolves over time, and how it relates to
person and situation factors. Third, it considers the immediate assessment of
well-being derived from the work experience itself, and does not rely on post-
hoc evaluations of the experience.
Shmotkins (2005) systematic framework for interpreting well-being and
related phenomena integrates the between-person and within-person
approaches to well-being. He argues that subjective well-being represents “a
dynamic system whose role is to constitute a favorable psychological environ-
ment” (p. 295) to help individuals face the challenges of life, and divides the
domain of subjective well-being into experiential well-being and declarative
well-being. Experiential well-being is derived through introspection and aware-
ness of oneself at the moment in which one is engaged in an activity. Experien-
tial well-being is not an evaluative response, but rather, well-being embedded
within the experience itself; it provides the individual with resources to deal
with challenges in the external environment. Declarative well-being, on the
other hand, operates in the public context through social interaction, and is
defined as “any report of [subjective well-being] to an audience” (Shmotkin,
2005, p. 303, italics in original); that is, declarative well-being refers to reports
of well-being to someone else or to oneself, including typical subjective well-
being reports. We, like Shmotkin, argue that differences between declarative
and experiential well-being are not trivial, and that by considering employees
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experiential well-being at work, we can better understand how work life influ-
ences employees declarative well-being.
We draw from self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and flow
theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) to understand the relationship between experi-
ential well-being and declarative well-being. Self-determination theory sug-
gests that individuals have basic psychological needs to act competently and
autonomously and when these needs are fulfilled, individuals experience
heightened declarative well-being. Flow theory suggests that a source or ante-
cedent of declarative well-being is the experience of flow: an event or activity
that is so demanding that it requires, but does not exceed, all of the individuals
attention and skill, and that it is “worth doing for its own sake” even if there is
no external reward (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 824). This description of flow is
consistent with what Shmotkin (2005) calls experiential well-being. Self-
determination theory and flow theory are similar in that they both describe
how individuals obtain declarative well-being outcomes. However, the two the-
ories differ in that self-determination theory deals with evaluations of individ-
ual action (e.g. acting autonomously or competently), whereas flow theory
focuses on the experience itself, including individual and contextual factors
such as individual skill and task difficulty.
This study examines the relationships between flow at work, need fulfill-
ment, and declarative well-being outcomes, and also attempts to identify indi-
vidual dispositions that moderate the relationships between experiential and
declarative well-being. This study has three major objectives. First, we propose
that it is the fulfillment of basic psychological needs associated with flow at
work that explains why and how flow and well-being are related. Although
self-determination theory and flow theory share common elements (Deci &
Ryan, 2000), no research to date has examined predictions from the two theo-
ries in an integrated study of employees at work. Such an integrated examina-
tion constitutes our second objective. Finally, our third objective is to
empirically examine how broad personality factors influence the relationships
among flow experiences, need fulfillment, and declarative well-being.
HYPOTHESIS DEVELOPMENT
Flow and Declarative Well-Being
Csikszentmihalyi found that flow occurs when individuals are “so intensely
involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is
so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing
it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 4). Almost counterintuitive is the finding that
these experiences occur more frequently when individuals are engaged in work
or other demanding activities, rather than during leisure time (Csikszentmiha-
lyi & LeFevre, 1989). Consistent with this perspective, Shmotkin (2005) has
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argued that one of the ways in which individuals attain experiential well-being
is through engaging in challenging tasks or activities, when possessing high
task-specific ability.
Flow experiences are associated with high levels of focus, concentration,
action, and progress, and are not typically studied under the rubric of well-
being. However, once individuals have completed a flow experience, they
“report having been in as positive a state as it is possible to feel” (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1999, p. 825). In addition to the experiential well-being which flow pro-
vides, we expect these experiences to influence subsequent employee
evaluations of their well-being (declarative well-being). This is because individ-
uals are able to recognise the high level of focus and goal attainment, as well as
the high level of energy and progress that they enjoyed while in flow.
Prior research suggests that this is the case. For example, Csikszentmihalyi
and LeFevre (1989) found that employees who more frequently experienced
flow reported being happier, more cheerful, friendlier, and more sociable than
those who experienced flow less frequently. Eisenberger, Jones, Stinglhamber,
Shanock, and Randall (2005) also found a connection between flow and posi-
tive mood, with this connection being particularly strong among individuals
high in achievement orientation. At the daily level of analysis, Fullagar and
Kelloway (2009) found that employees who experienced higher levels of flow
also reported being more alert, happy, involved, excited, and so forth. Ceja and
Navarro (2011) showed that those employees experiencing higher levels of flow
also experienced high levels of enjoyment at work. In sum, it seems that there is
enough conceptual and empirical support to suggest a positive association
between the experience of flow and positive affect at work.
In addition to experiencing favorable affective outcomes at work, research
has shown that individuals are more likely to declare higher job satisfaction
after experiencing flow at work, compared to occasionswhen theydo not expe-
rience flow (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989). One explanation is that
employees will perceive their jobs as the mechanism allowing them to obtain
flow. Flow experiences are characterised by absorption and intrinsic motiva-
tion (Bakker, 2005; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). As employees engage in flow
while performing their job, they realise that the challenge associated with their
work gives them opportunities to stretch their abilities and skills, thereby facili-
tating flow. Retrospective reflection upon these experiences will lead to employ-
ees positive evaluation towards the jobs (i.e. higher job satisfaction).
Basic mood theory and research as well as conceptual arguments and
research on mood at work supporting “the generalization of moods earlier in
the day to moods later in the day” (Judge & Ilies, 2004, p. 664) suggest that
flow may also impact end-of-day affect. For instance, Demerouti, Bakker, Son-
nentag, and Fullagar (2012) found that work-related flow not only influences
positive affect right after the flow experience but also spills over to the non-
work domain by positively influencing the affective experience of workers
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during off-job time. Therefore, similar to our prediction with respect to job sat-
isfaction, we expect employees to report higher levels of positive affect at the
end of days when they engaged in more activities that facilitate flow compared
to workdays when they did not engage in as many such activities.
Effects of Flow on Declarative Well-Being through Need
Satisfaction
Flow and Need Satisfaction. Early conceptualisations of self-
determination theory (Deci, 1975) and flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975)
show conceptual overlap as they both include an emphasis on intrinsic motiva-
tion (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Flow experiences typically occur when an individual
is engaged in a task or activity that is intrinsically rewarding. Similarly, self-
determination theory proposes that individuals are intrinsically motivated to
seek out specific tasks or activities because these tasks and activities allow
them to fulfill their basic psychological needs (e.g. competence, autonomy).
A comparison of flow and self-determination theories suggested that an inte-
gration of the two would “allow a fuller account of flow” (Deci & Ryan, 2000,
p. 261) and would enable a more in-depth investigation of motivational
phenomena.
Csikszentmihalyi (1997) suggested that during a flow experience people
know how well they are doing because flow experiences provide instant feed-
back—feedback not contingent upon any external party but rather derived
from the task itself. Individuals experiencing flow receive confirmation that
their actions are resulting in progress, leading to a sense of competence in the
task at hand. This addresses one of the basic psychological needs innate in
humans (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2001). We therefore expect that
when individuals experience flow, their basic psychological need for compe-
tence will be fulfilled.
In addition to meeting individuals needs to demonstrate competence, the
experience of flow is intrinsically satisfying and should therefore lead individu-
als to be pleasedwith theirdecision to pursue these activities (Csikszentmihalyi
& LeFevre, 1989). We suggest that one reason why flow leads to positive
employee outcomes at work is that when an activity provides opportunity for
the employees skills to be used and refined to the utmost, the activity becomes
more interesting and enjoyable, and the worker also becomes more productive.
Thus, individuals evaluate their decision to work on the task as consistent with
their desires, thereby resulting in the satisfaction of their need to act autono-
mously. Moreover, individuals are able to turn mundane or monotonous tasks
into something that induces flow. For instance, in a study of daily job crafting,
Petrou, Demerouti, Peeters, Schaufeli, and Hetland (2012) found that active
employees fulfill their psychological need to act autonomously at work by
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seeking new challenges in their jobs. Thus, flow experiences are related to the
satisfaction of an employees basic psychological need to act autonomously.
Need Satisfaction and Declarative Well-Being. A growing body of
research, built upon self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), leads us to
propose that flows influence on declarative well-being is due to the mediating
effect of need fulfillment. In a two-week experience sampling study of college
students, Sheldon, Ryan, and Reis (1996) found that the daily fulfillment of
needs for competence and autonomy was related to well-being, which included
affect, vitality, and physical health. Results from another two-week, within-
individual study found that daily fluctuations in the fulfillment of needs for
autonomy and competence were related to fluctuations in positive mood (Reis,
Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000).
The fulfillment of basic psychological needs has also been shown to relate to
various types of satisfaction. A field experiment testing self-determination
theory found that managers orientation toward supporting self-determination
was strongly related to general satisfaction (Deci, Connell, & Ryan, 1989).
Likewise, results from a field sample of employees and their supervisors indi-
cate that supervisor and employee ratings of autonomy and competence were
related to several positive outcomes, including work satisfaction (Ilardi, Leone,
Kasser, & Ryan, 1993). A large-scale study of over 5,000 managers in 24 differ-
ent countries found that managers who felt in control of their work exhibited
higher job satisfaction than those who felt that their work was driven by exter-
nal influences (Spector et al., 2002). In light of these consistent relationships
between need fulfillment and declarative well-being, we hypothesise:
Hypothesis 1: The experience of flow at work will positively influence daily declar-
ative well-being such that employees will report higher (a) positive affect and (b)
job satisfaction at the end of workdays on which they engage in more activities
which meet the conditions for experiencing flow (high challenge and high skill),
compared to days when they engage in fewer of those activities.
Hypothesis 2: Fulfillment of needs for autonomy and competence will partially
mediate the effects of flow experiences on (a) positive affect and (b) job satisfac-
tion at the end of workdays.
The Moderating Role of Individual Differences in
Personality
Csikszentmihalyis (1990) concept of autotelic personality suggests that some
people tend to position themselves in flow situations, with a greater capacity to
initiate, sustain, and enjoy optimal experiences (Nakamura & Csikszentmiha-
lyi, 2002). Where non-autotelic personalities may see difficulty, a deep sense of
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interest and strong purpose aids autotelic individuals to recognise opportuni-
ties to build their skills. They are open to new information and challenges to
capitalise on the opportunity to build new skills.
The autotelic personality is a conjunction of receptive (e.g. openness) and
active qualities (e.g. strong sense of purpose and will). These two qualities
act as meta-skills that autotelic individuals use to find flow in their daily
activities (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), but their roles in the flow
experience have rarely been examined (Baumann & Scheffer, 2011). We
therefore extend this line of reasoning by suggesting that individuals who are
open to experience and have a strong purpose will have a greater apprecia-
tion for flow experiences and may derive greater benefit from these experien-
ces than other individuals.
Openness to experience relates to an individuals affinity for “varied
experience for its own sake” (Vittersø, 2003, p. 149). Open individuals seek
out novel experiences, whereas their closed counterparts are less interested
in new experiences (McCrae & Costa, 1985). Openness to experience also
refers to the extent to which individuals are imaginative, curious, inde-
pendent thinkers, and amenable to new ideas and perspectives (Costa &
McCrae, 1992) . Highly open individuals need excitement and activities
that engage their curious minds. Flow experiences require all of an individ-
uals attention, skill, and effort, and with the successful completion of the
challenging task, the individuals skill at the task increases (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1990).
Because highly open individuals have a tendency to seek out new or novel
experiences, they will be sensitive to the changing nature of the tasks that bring
about flow experiences, and they will therefore respond more favorably to flow
experiences, because such experiences fulfill their needs to autonomously
choose new and engaging activities. Therefore, we expect:
Hypothesis 3: Openness to experience will moderate the relationship between flow
and fulfillment of the need for autonomy, such that the relationship will be stron-
ger for individuals high on openness to experience, than for those low on it.
Conscientiousness refers to an individuals strong sense of purpose and will,
dependability, reliability, self-control, and tendency to work hard to achieve
goals (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Part of the appeal of flow experiences is the
intense focus involved during these events, and one reason why such focus is
possible is because goals are clear and feedback is instantaneous (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1997). Therefore, individuals who derive high levels of satisfaction from
pursuing and attaining goals would be expected to particularly appreciate flow
experiences. For example, conscientious individuals base part of their self-
image upon the successful development and utilisation of talent and skill, and
the attainment of goals. Therefore, the experience of flow, which results from
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matching high skill with high challenge, should meet an achievement-oriented
individuals need to surpass set standards (Eisenberger et al., 2005).
Flow experiences will also appeal to a conscientious individuals desire to be
organised and to have a strong sense of purpose, because during flow experien-
ces individuals have no surplus attention and are completely engaged in the
task. Moreover, when engaged in a flow experience, although the task is diffi-
cult, it is very clear to the individual what needs to be done next, further
appealing to the individuals desire fororder. Therefore, the conscientious indi-
viduals need to be organised and purposeful will be met, thus contributing to
a sense of competence in the task at hand.
Hypothesis 4: Conscientiousness will moderate the relationship between flow and
fulfillment of the need for competence such that the relationship will be stronger
for individuals high in conscientiousness, than for those low on it.
METHODS
Participants and Procedure
We recruited 150 full-time professionals, administrative supervisors, and
clerical-technical workers at an American university. Participation in the study
was completely voluntary and employees were compensated up to US $100 for
their participation. After signing up for the study using a Web-based registra-
tion page, participants selected an orientation session to attend for training on
the experience sampling device (a Palm Pilot) and then completed a Web-
based survey that gathered various demographic measures. Of the 150 partici-
pants who signed up for the study, 118 attended the training. During training
sessions, participants first completed a short survey assessing their personality
traits, and then received instruction on how to fill out the experience sampling
surveys on the Palm Pilot.
The day after the last training session, the experience sampling portion of
the study began in which participants completed a short survey during each of
three blocks of time throughout the day (8:30 am to 10:00 am; 10:00 am to
11:30 am; 1:30 pm to 3:00 pm), for 10 consecutive workdays. These surveys
assessed the task in which the participants were engaged when signaled by the
Palm Pilot (audible signals were programmed to occur at a random time within
each time window, using the using the Purdue Momentary Assessment Tool by
Weiss, Beal, Lucy, and MacDermid, 2004). At the end of each workday, partic-
ipants completed a short survey assessing their declarative well-being for the
day (positive affect and job satisfaction). The survey was to be completed after
participants had finished working for the day and was available between 4:00
pm and 6:00 pm.
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Of the 118 individuals who participated in the daily portion of the study,
four were dropped from the sample because they responded to fewer than three
of the possible ten sets of matched surveys (i.e. Palm Pilot surveys throughout
the day matched with Web surveys at the end of the day). The final sample
included 114 individuals (74% female, mean age of 43.5 years, and mean job
tenure of 13.2 years). Out of 3,420 potential measurements for the three daily
surveys on the Palm Pilot and 1,140 potential end-of-day measurements, we
obtained a total of 3,032 Palm Pilot surveys and 970 end-of-day Web surveys.
We averaged the Palm Pilot measures for each individual each day to create
day-level measures of flow and need fulfillment for each individual, and then
matched these measures with the end-of-day declarative well-being measures.
We obtained 892 matched response sets, representing a final response rate of
78.2 per cent.
Measures
Flow. Although flow theory offers promising insight for individual expe-
rience at work, the discrete and intrapsychic nature offlow experiences has pre-
sented measurement difficulties. To study the phenomenon, Csikszentmihalyi
and colleagues developed the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), a tech-
nique in which participants are intermittently signaled (e.g. by a pager, wrist-
watch alarm, or handheld computer) and then asked to indicate the challenge
and skill related to the task in which they were engaged when signaled (see
Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This assessment methodology circumvents many
problems associated with retrospective measurement (see Larson & Csikszent-
mihalyi, 1983), and eliminates the need to ask respondents to define flow expe-
riences by instead asking them to specify the nature of the task at hand.
Because of these advantages, the assessment of flow through ESM reports of
high challenge and high skill has been adopted by flow researchers and exten-
sively used in the empirical research on the topic (Bakker, 2005; Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1990, 1997, 2000; Csikszentmihalyi & Hunter, 2003; Csikszentmihalyi &
LeFevre, 1989; Delespaul, Reis, & DeVries, 2004; Reiss, 2000).
Although the conceptualisation of flow as high challenge/high skill does not
address the internal processes comprising individual experiences, it does iden-
tify situations in which the individual isin the midstof the conditions that facil-
itate flow experiences. Furthermore, because this approach does not require
individuals to consciously evaluate or declare their psychic state, this measure
of flow will allow us to inductively assess participants experiential well-being
states (i.e. identify when they are in flow) rather than ask individuals to report
how they feel, which assesses their declarative well-being (e.g. affect and
satisfaction).
During each of the Palm Pilot surveys, respondents were asked to answer
two items on a 1–5 agreement scale. The first item (“The task/activity was very
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challenging”) relates to the task, and the second (“I am highly skilled for this
task/activity”) relates to the individual. Closely following established proce-
dure (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989), we com-
puted a mean score for each individual on each of the two items. We then
coded whether each discrete score was above or below the individuals own
mean of skill or challenge reports. When the individual was facing higher than
average challenge and reported demonstrating higher than average skill, we
coded the situation as a flow experience. The other configurations of responses
(high skill/low challenge; low skill/high challenge; low skill/low challenge) were
not considered flow experiences.
Autonomy. Following Reis et al. (2000), autonomy was measured during
each of the Palm Pilot surveys by asking respondents to report the reason for
which they were engaged in the particular task or activity at that time.
Respondents indicated, on 1–5 agreement scales, the extent to which they
engaged in each particular task or activity for external (“something about your
external situation forced you to do it”), introjected (“you made yourself do it,
to avoid anxiety or guilt”), identified (“interesting or not, you felt that it
expressed your true values”), or intrinsic (“you did it purely for the interest and
enjoyment in doing it”) reasons. For each response, we computed a summary
autonomy score by adding together the items with the following weights:
intrinsic (12), identified (11), introjected (21), and external (22). This
method of computing summary autonomy scores for discrete activities is iden-
tical to that used in previous research assessing state autonomy (Grolnick &
Ryan, 1987; Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 1991; Reis et al., 2000; Sheldon & Kasser,
1995; Sheldon et al., 1996). Finally, daily autonomy scores were calculated by
averaging the three responses for this scale on each day for each respondent.
Competence. During the Palm Pilot surveys participants were also asked
to rate their competence on the task or activity in which they were engaged at
the time they were signaled. Participants responded to the items: “How suc-
cessful do you feel in the task/activity in which you were involved when you
received the signal?” and “How effective is your performance on the task/activ-
ity in which you were engaged when you received the signal?” on a scale from
15not at all effective/successful to 55extremely effective/successful (see Reis
et al., 2000). Daily competence scores were calculated by averaging the three
responses for this scale for each respondent on each day. The average internal
consistency reliability for the measure was .85.
Positive Affect. We used the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule
(PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) with momentary instructions. We
presented participants with 10 adjective descriptors of activated positive affect
and asked them to indicate the extent to which the listed adjective described
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their feelings “right now”. Sample adjectives from this scale are “interested”,
“excited”, and “determined”. Responses were given on a scale ranging from
15very slightly or not at all to 55extremely. The average internal consistency
reliability was .92.
Job Satisfaction. Daily job satisfaction was measured at the end of each
workday with the five-item Brayfield-Rothe Index (Brayfield & Rothe, 1951),
slightly modified to represent daily rather than general evaluations of job satis-
faction. Example items include: “Today I have felt enthusiastic about my
work” and “Today I found real enjoyment in my work”, and were answered on
a scale from 15strongly disagree to 55strongly agree.Theaverageinternal
consistency reliability for job satisfaction was.90.
Personality Measures. Openness to experience and conscientiousness
were measured once, via a paper-based survey completed during the orienta-
tion meeting, using items from the NEO-FFI (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Partici-
pants indicated how much they agreed or disagreed with each item on a scale
from 15strongly disagree to 55strongly agree. An example item for openness
is “I have a wide range of intellectual interests.” An example item for conscien-
tiousness is“I work hard to accomplish mygoals.” The average internal consis-
tency reliability for both openness to experience and conscientiousness was.79.
ANALYSES
We used Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM) to simultaneously model rela-
tionships at two levels of analysis. At the first level, we modeled the direct
intra-individual effects of flow on need fulfillment and declarative well-being,
and we also examined the mediating role of need fulfillment in the relationship
between flow and declarative well-being. All of the intra-individual predictors
were centered relative to each individuals mean score, eliminating the inter-
individual variance in the predictor scores and ensuring that the estimated
effects are exclusively due to intra-individual fluctuations in the predictor
scores over time (e.g. Ilies, Dimotakis, & de Pater, 2010). The cross-level mod-
erating effects were examined by regressing individuals characteristic parame-
ters estimated at the first level of analysis (e.g. each individuals characteristic
intercept and slope for predicting need fulfillment) on their scores of the per-
sonality traits at the second level of analysis. To indicate effect sizes, we fol-
lowed the suggestions by Hofmann, Griffin, and Gavin (2000) to compute
pseudo-R
2
values to assess the amount of variance explained by our study
variables.
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RESULTS
Table 1 presents the correlations among all study variables, computed both
within and between individuals. Flow scores were not correlated with any other
variable between individuals; however, within individuals, flow was significantly
correlated with all scores, although the relationship with the fulfillment of the
need for autonomy was weak (p<.10). This pattern of between- and within-
individual correlations is not surprising, given the method for computing flow
scores that uses deviations from each individuals average scores on challenge
and skill.
Hypothesis 1, which states that flow at work will predict the two declarative
well-being indicators—positive affect and job satisfaction—collected at the
end of employees workdays, was supported (b5.12 and .15, respectively,
p<.01 for both; see main effects model in Table 2). Flow at work accounted
for 2 per cent of the within-person variance in positive affect and 3 per cent of
that in job satisfaction. Hypothesis 2 predicted that the fulfillment of employ-
ees needs for autonomy and competence would mediate, in part, the effects of
flow on employees declarative well-being. Flow predicted the fulfillment of
TABLE 1
Between- and Within-Individual Correlations among Study Variables
Variable M
Between-
person
SD
Within-
person
SD
Within-
person
variance
%1234567
1. Flow at Work .28 .15 .28 78% .22** .07 .12** .15**
2. Need Fulfillment:
Competence
3.71 .38 .46 59% 2.12 (.85) .24** .16** .21**
3. Need Fulfillment:
Autonomy
1.16 2.49 2.73 55% 2.03 .23* .16** .25**
4. Positive Affect 2.72 .68 .55 40% .02 .44** .46** (.92) .46**
5. Job Satisfaction 3.54 .73 .52 34% 2.02 .33** .48** .60** (.90)
6. Openness to
Experience
3.52 .62 .02 2.02 2.01 2.10 2.19* (.79) –
7. Conscientiousness 3.98 .52 2.13 .35** .29** .11 .18 2.12 (.79)
Notes:N5114 individuals and 892–1,032 observations. The correlations below the diagonal represent
between-individual associations, computed using individuals aggregated scores and based on a sample size
of 114 individuals. The standard deviations were computed at the between-individual level (using average
scores where appropriate). The correlations above the diagonal represent within-individual associations (over
time) and were estimated from fixed effects HLM models with single level-1 predictors and no level-2 predic-
tors. The values on the diagonal represent internal consistencies; for the within-individual variables the inter-
nal consistency estimates are averages across measurement occasions; the coding methods for Need
Fulfillment: Autonomy and Flow at Work do not allow estimating the reliability of these scores. * p<.05; **
p<.01 (two-tailed).
14 ILIES ET AL.
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individuals needs (b5.07, p<.05 for autonomy; standardised b5.22, p<.01
for competence; Table 3); upon introducing the two need satisfaction variables
in the intra-individual regression predicting declarative well-being indicators
with flow, the regression coefficients for predicting positive affect and job satis-
faction with flow decreased by 33.3 per cent and 26.7 per cent, respectively (see
Table 2). Third, mediation tests for multilevel models based on the z0test
described by MacKinnon, Lockwood, Hoffman, West, and Sheets (2002)
TABLE 2
Effects of Flow at Work on Daily Declarative Well-Being (Positive Affect and Job
Satisfaction) and the Mediating Role of Need Fulfillment
Predictors/Criterion Positive Affect T-Value Job Satisfaction T-Value
Main Effects
Intercept 2.73 41.27** 3.54 50.16**
Flow at Work .12 4.03** .15 4.73**
Mediating Role of Need Fulfillment
Intercept 2.73 41.09** 3.54 50.13**
Flow at Work .08 2.37** .11 3.52**
Need Fulfillment: Competence .10 2.22* .15 4.31**
Need Fulfillment: Autonomy .12 3.05** .19 5.03**
Notes: Estimates were obtained using 892 daily data points provided by 114 individuals by conducting a
series of within-individual regressions in HLM (the slope coefficients are all standardised). All predictor
scores were centered at the individuals means to eliminate between-individual variance. * p<.05; ** p<.01
(one-tailed, directional effects).
TABLE 3
Effects of Flow at Work on Need Fulfillment and the Moderating Role of
Personality Traits
Model/Criterion
Need Fulfillment:
Autonomy T-Value
Need Fulfillment:
Competence T-Value
Moderated Model
Intercept 1.17 4.74** 3.71 103.81**
Flow at Work .07 1.88* .22 6.71**
Openness to Experience 2.04 2.09 –
Conscientiousness .27 3.71**
Openness 3Flow 1.58 2.76** –
Conscientiousness 3Flow – .06 .59
Notes: These values were estimated in HLM models that regressed competence or autonomy on flow at work
at level 1, and at level 2 predicted the level-1 intercept and beta with individuals scores on openness to expe-
rience. The scores on flow at work were centered relative to each participan ts mean, and the effects of flow
at work are standardised. * p<.05; ** p<.01 (one-tailed, directional effects).
FLOW AT WORK AND WELL-BEING 15
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revealed that the flow-competence mediated paths were statistically significant
when predicting both positive affect and job satisfaction (p<.01 for both),
whereas the flow-autonomy mediated path was significant when predicting job
satisfaction (p<.05) but only approached traditional significance when posi-
tive affect was the end criterion (p<.07). Overall, 12 per cent of within-person
variance in positive affect and job satisfaction was explained by the mediation
models. These results generally support Hypothesis 2.
Finally, we examined the moderating role of openness to experience
(Hypothesis 3) and conscientiousness (Hypothesis 4) on the relationships
between flow and the fulfillment of needs for autonomy and competence,
respectively. Table 3 shows the HLM results testing the interaction between
flow and the two personality variables on need fulfillment. Openness to experi-
ence had a moderating effect on the intra-individual relationship between flow
and the fulfillment of employees need for autonomy (see Table 3).
1
This find-
ing supports Hypothesis 3, indicating that individual differences in personality
affect the manner in which individuals react to flow experiences. Although con-
scientiousness did exert a main effect on the fulfillment of individuals need for
competence, it did not have any interactive effect with flow on need fulfillment,
failing to support Hypothesis 4.
Figure 1 shows the moderated relationship from Hypothesis 3, indicating
that employees who are more open to new experiences are also more sensitive
to the autonomic need fulfillment effects of flow at work, by showing a stron-
ger link between the two. These individuals have their need for autonomy more
strongly fulfilled when they experience flow, compared to those low in open-
ness to experience. Therefore, flow is particularly important for individuals
high in openness to experience, whereas those low in openness show very little
connection between flow and the fulfillment of their need for autonomy. Next,
although such effects were not formally hypothesised, we investigated the mod-
erating role ofopenness on the relationships between flow and declarative well-
being outcomes (i.e. job satisfaction). Indeed, openness to experience did mod-
erate the effect offlowon both declarative well-being outcomes. Figure 2 shows
that the relationship between flow experiences and positive affect was stronger
for individuals higher in openness to experience, compared to individuals low
in openness to experience (the interactive effect on job satisfaction was
similar).
DISCUSSION
This study found that individuals experiential and declarative well-being are
distinct, yet related, concepts. Specifically, we found that a type of experiential
1
Twenty-four per cent of the variance in the slopes was explained by openness to
experience.
16 ILIES ET AL.
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FIGURE 2. The moderating influence of openness to experience on the effect of
flow on positive affect.
FIGURE 1. The moderating influence of openness to experience on the effect of
flow on autonomy need fulfillment.
FLOW AT WORK AND WELL-BEING 17
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well-being—flow—was positively related to measures of declarative well-being
(positive affect and job satisfaction). We also found that the fulfillment of indi-
viduals needs for competence and autonomy partially mediated the influence
of flow on declarative well-being outcomes. Our moderator analyses showed
that individual differences in openness to experience influence the relationship
between flow and the fulfillment of individuals needs for autonomy, such that
individuals higher in openness to experience show stronger positive relation-
ships than do individuals low in openness. Finally, in post-hoc analyses, we
found that the relationships between flow and declarative well-being outcomes
(positive affect and job satisfaction) were also moderated by openness to
experience, with highly open individuals experiencing stronger positive
relationships.
We believe these findings yield a more comprehensive understanding of the
nature of work experiences and their implications for employee well-being.
First, we found that the fulfillment of basic psychological needs associated
with flow explains how and why flow at work is associated with greater well-
being. Second, the study identifies how personality traits moderate the effect
of flow on need fulfillment and declarative well-being. Third, this study con-
structively replicates past research on need fulfillment and well-being by utilis-
ing a repeated-measures, multiple-method design. Although we found only
weak support for our hypothesis that flow leads to the fulfillment of employ-
ees need for autonomy, the moderating effect of openness to experience on
this relationship was strong. This is consistent with our argument that some
individuals are more likely to feel that they have acted autonomously following
the experience of flow because they are able to turn tasks into flow-inducing
activities. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) gives the example of a welder in a dreary
assembly plant who consistently found flow in his work, despite the obligatory
and seemingly monotonous nature of the task.
Strengths and Weaknesses
This study has several notable strengths. First, the conceptual integration of
self-determination theory and flow theory brings together two related perspec-
tives which, to our knowledge, have not been concurrently addressed in the
organisational literature. Furthermore, we empirically tested the conceptual
integration and found support for our proposed model. To this theoretical
integration we add our findings on personality, indicating the value of a per-
son–situation perspective on flow. We therefore encourage organisational
researchers to consider the impact of flow and need fulfillment concepts, as
well as individual differences in personality, as they investigate employee well-
being in the workplace.
A second strength of the study stems from the measurement design. This
intra-individual study used a repeated-measures design to enable a within-
18 ILIES ET AL.
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individual data analytic approach, which mitigates the concern that results
might be driven by individual differences. Thus, we have illustrated how flow
experiences influence employees across time, and how fluctuations in work
experiences influence fluctuations in declarative well-being. Furthermore, we
used three different data collection approaches (Palm Pilot, paper-based sur-
vey, Web-based surveys), taken during three distinct time periods. This reduces
common-method variance concerns, and the temporal separation in the mea-
surement of predictors, moderators, and outcomes should reduce common
source bias (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Lee, & Podsakoff, 2003).
Of course, this study also has weaknesses. First, because all data are self-
report, we cannot rule out other directional interpretations for our findings.
However, measures were taken in different psychological contexts; that is, the
momentary measures were taken throughout the day as employees were
engaged in their various tasks at work, whereas the declarative well-being
measures were completed on a Web-survey after the employee had completed
work for the day. Thus, the end-of-day evaluation of positive affect and job sat-
isfaction is a declarative evaluation of the employees well-being for the day,
whereas the earlier Palm Pilot measures are in situ assessments of the employ-
ees current psychological states. Also, common source bias is less of a concern
in our moderator analyses (e.g. Evans, 1985).
Another concern is that, although flow conceptually occurs before the fulfill-
ment of needs for autonomy and competence, the constructs were measured at
the same point in time. However, we feel this is not a strong concern because of
the way in which we measure flow. The four-channel model of flow (see Csiks-
zentmihalyi, 1990) suggests that an individual must be highly challenged and
highly skilled in order to have a flow experience. Accordingly, we asked individ-
uals to report upon the characteristics of the task and their task-specific skill.
This approach reduces the likelihood of bias that would otherwise be present
with a typical continuous scale variable in which participants subjectively rate
their level of flow. Moreover, when one is engaged in flow, thought and action
are focused on the activity at hand, and therefore our measure evaluates the
conditions that facilitate flow, rather than the actual experience of flow. By ask-
ing respondents to describe the situation rather than their reaction to the expe-
rience, we minimise the likelihood that our measure of flow is biased by
unnecessary evaluations. Need fulfillment, on the other hand, entails a process
in which the individual evaluates his or her reaction to an experience. These
distinctions show how the measurement of flow and need fulfillment are differ-
ent, despite their concurrent measurement.
Implications for Theory and Practice
Theory indicates that flow and self-determination are important in influencing
employee well-being. As research on well-being garners interest from
FLOW AT WORK AND WELL-BEING 19
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organisational scholars, we encourage them to consider the role of both experi-
ential and declarative well-being (Shmotkin, 2005) for employees wellness and
organisational effectiveness. Most research on job demands indicates that
workload is positively related to adverse health outcomes such as strain (Kara-
sek, 1979), yet it is likely that challenge and workload are positively correlated.
This suggests that, although on average, high amounts of workload are harm-
ful to employees, a portion of the effect might actually be beneficial. Therefore,
a comprehensive integration of theoretical approaches to workload and chal-
lenge could yield a theoretical recipe for high levels of engagement at work.
Although the original research on flow addressed scientists, artists, and ath-
letes, our study illustrates that flow is relevant to everyday work life. By
employing a mean-centered approach, we are able to identify instances in
which our participants were likely to be engaged in activities that facilitate
experiential well-being (flow) during working hours. In fact, in our study, indi-
viduals reported being in conditions conducive to flow during 28 per cent of
the occasions on which they were surveyed.
2
This figure is within the range
reported by previous research (16.4% for cashiers to 57.6% for craftsmen and
other professionals; Ceja & Navarro, 2012; Delle Fave, Massimini, & Bassi,
2011). It follows that a straightforward implication of our findings for manag-
ers is that they should strive to facilitate conditions for flow, perhaps by job
(re)design (e.g. increasing skill variety and autonomy; Fullagar & Kelloway,
2009), to have more satisfied employees. Furthermore, such efforts would also
increase performance, particularly in creative jobs, because of the links
between flow (or positive affect which was influenced by flow in our study) and
various dimensions of job performance (Demerouti, 2006; George & Brief,
1992).
One interesting finding from our moderator analyses is that when not
engaged in flow experiences, individuals low on openness to experience
reported consistently higher declarative well-being than did individuals high in
openness to experience. Furthermore, more closed individuals appeared to
show little if any relationship between flow experiences and declarative well-
being outcomes. This suggests that, although flow is an important part of most
employees work, its importance seems to be most evident for individuals who
are open to experience, as it appears that these individuals need flow experien-
ces in order to sustain their well-being.
Another implication of our findings for the workplace is that, to the extent
to which employees have sufficient decision latitude on the job, they might be
able to craft their jobs (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001) in a way that provides
2
The range for the daily flow reports was 0–100% (i.e. there were days when some partici-
pants reported being in flow for each of the three assessments) although no individual reported
being in flow for every assessment and eight respondents never reported being in flow.
20 ILIES ET AL.
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them with more opportunities to engage in flow experiences. Modifying jobs in
this manner will likely satisfy the employees needs for competence and
autonomy, resulting in greater satisfaction and positive affect on the job, in
part through the experience of flow. Therefore, organisations could experience
increments to employee well-being by allowing employees to craft their jobs in
ways that facilitate flow.
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Book
I: Background.- 1. An Introduction.- 2. Conceptualizations of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination.- II: Self-Determination Theory.- 3. Cognitive Evaluation Theory: Perceived Causality and Perceived Competence.- 4. Cognitive Evaluation Theory: Interpersonal Communication and Intrapersonal Regulation.- 5. Toward an Organismic Integration Theory: Motivation and Development.- 6. Causality Orientations Theory: Personality Influences on Motivation.- III: Alternative Approaches.- 7. Operant and Attributional Theories.- 8. Information-Processing Theories.- IV: Applications and Implications.- 9. Education.- 10. Psychotherapy.- 11. Work.- 12. Sports.- References.- Author Index.