Group Think

How collective flow states can lead to a happier, healthier group.

Whether or not you can remember a time when you experienced flow state, you’ve probably experienced group flow. From religious services to company retreats, political rallies and group exercise classes, there are plenty of shared opportunities to experience the easy focus, enthusiasm and lost sense of time that are hallmarks of flow states.

Group flow just means a time when people get in the zone together. Typically, when we do that, we end up with tighter bonds and greater motivation. And once you have tasted that experience, you’re more likely to return to the place you experienced it, like the gym, for more of the same. It’s true when we play, and when we work too: Gallup has done surveys that find the top predictor of someone’s workplace longevity and performance is whether he or she has a best friend (i.e., tighter connections and a greater chance of sharing flow) at work.

This shared flow state is so powerful because our bodies produce chemicals that reinforce the group experience. For example, the hormone oxytocin prompts trust and bonding, which helps us motivate and mobilize one another into action, whether for a cause, a challenge or simple enjoyment. Oxytocin not only supports warm, fuzzy feelings; it also supports the tight connections that experts refer to as tribalism.

Community and “communitas”

Anthropologist Victor Turner called this sense of tribalism “communitas,” and it’s not to be taken lightly. In flow states we lose our sense of ourselves, and we merge with what’s around us. If we’re involved in an action sport, we feel we become one with the mountain, the ocean or whatever element it is that challenges us. If we’re in a giant crowd, we merge with the crowd.

In states of social and political excitement, communitas is so powerful that it can prompt us to, quite literally, lose our minds. We can lose touch with our rational sense of ourselves, or become swept up in a form of irrational collectivism. We can give up our ethics, our autonomy, our decision-making and sense of choice, and follow the actions of others, even if it runs counter to our personal principles. “Madness in individuals is rare,” said Nietzsche, “but in groups it’s almost the norm.” So, beware of Pied Pipers and always check the integrity of the people leading the charge — it matters.

Despite those cautions, we crave connection. Plenty has been written about the long-term effect of life in the suburbs (aka, the “Bowling Alone” [] syndrome), our lack of close family ties, the superficial friendships we sustain online. We’re suffering from the separation of living as such rational individuals. The key is to move forward toward an informed, responsible and elective form of collectivism. That state of “post-rational collectivism” compared to “irrational collectivism” includes the rational individual, without being limited by it. That way, we all get to step outside ourselves for brief moments of feeling part of something bigger, without having to check our own judgment, values and responsibilities at the door.

One contemporary example of this potential is at Burning Man, the annual desert gathering for art and music in the Nevada desert just north of Reno. While the activities might not be everyone’s cup of tea, Burning Man’s organizing principles present the potential for people to convene in a way that helps knock people out of their separated, individual identities and into a state of make-it-up-as-you-go collectivism. The temporary city that “Burners” construct each year and the gift economy that sustains it depend upon individuals’ sense of their own and others’ good judgment, rights and responsibilities, while the gathering presents endless opportunities for collection, connection and collaboration. As the saying goes, “No Spectators!”

And the group flow that participants experience is off the charts. It’s why Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk and countless other entrepreneurs go there to get inspired. Just google “synchronicity at Burning Man” (meaning, a time when things seem to effortlessly fall into place at just the right time with the right people), and you’ll get over eighty thousand results.

Flow at work and play

There are plenty of examples of group flow at work in the corporate world, as well. Employees at companies like Toyota begin their workday with calisthenics. Military drills serve a similar purpose. Synchronization of breath and movement and attunement to music — or anything that primes people for a physiologically aroused state — will bond them to each other.

One study conducted in British Columbia asked men to either cross a suspension bridge, or to walk along a path paralleling the suspension bridge; at the other end, a woman posing as a researcher gave them her phone number to call if they wanted the results of the test. The men who crossed the bridge called her and tried to ask her out on a date at three times the rate of the men who just walked along the path. That’s because their riskier task flooded their systems with hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine (and once they’d made it safely across, dopamine) and other aspects of arousal, which we also equate with romantic love or attraction. Like little ducklings, we are primed to imprint connections, or whatever group sense of belonging we want.

You don’t have to cross a bridge, however, to establish the ingredients of flow. If you want to connect with family, friends or co-workers, you can do so with any activity that prompts you to pay close attention to another’s movements, especially in relation to yours. Whether it’s partner yoga, martial arts or line dancing, your attentiveness to others in motion creates a degree of intimacy that deepens connection.

Engaging multiple senses helps with group flow, too. If you’re hosting a dinner party, pay attention to olfactory cues not only from the kitchen but from candles — and even the products you use to clean your home. Lighting and seating are factors, for the same reason. You can take a page from Zappos CEO and “Life is Beautiful” festival backer Tony Hsieh, too: create as many scene changes as you can in an evening or the day if you’re spending time with someone. Those changes create novelty that spikes arousal, so that you feel like you’ve traveled 100 miles with someone when you’ve only spent a few hours together.

At the gym, we move, breathe and even vocalize in synchronization. We work out to compelling music in studios with dramatic and even dynamic lighting. That, in combination with the “runner’s high” neurochemicals of endorphins and anandamide, is part of what makes us so fired up to keep coming back to get our “fix.”

And if you want to create a similar effect with the family at home? Have your kids put away their devices and go for a walk and talk. The ancient Greeks called it peripatetic teaching — a fancy name for getting out, walking and talking. It might take a couple of hours, but don’t be surprised to hear a few more words from the teenager who’s normally silent with his or her phone in the car.

Group flow is powerful, but it’s not magical. We don’t have to make a false choice between living separately and losing ourselves in the crowd. Once we know the triggers — good people moving, working, singing or dancing together in engaging or challenging places — we can go about finding (and even creating) more of it for ourselves, and for the people with whom we live and work.