Animals in flow - towards the scientific study of intrinsic reward in animals

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2023 Jun;98(3):792-806. doi: 10.1111/brv.12930. Epub 2022 Dec 29.


The concept of flow, a state of complete absorption in an intrinsically rewarding activity, has played a pivotal role in advancing notions of human well-being beyond minimising suffering towards promoting flourishing and thriving. While flow has played a fundamental role in human positive psychology, it has not yet been explored in non-human animals, leaving an enormous void in our understanding of intrinsic motivation in animals. As ethology and related fields keep progressing in uncovering complex cognitive and affective capacities of non-human animals, we propose the time is ripe to translate the concept of flow to animals. We start by embedding flow in the topic of intrinsic motivation and describe its impact on positive human psychology and potentially positive animal welfare. We then disambiguate flow from related concepts discussed in the animal literature. Next, we derive experimental approaches in animals from the canonical characteristics of flow in humans and provide guidelines for both inducing and assessing flow by focusing on two characteristics that do not necessarily depend on self-report, namely resistance to distraction and time distortion. Not all aspects of the human flow experience are (yet) translatable, but those that are may improve quality of life in captive non-human animals.

Keywords: Eureka moment; affective states; agency; animal welfare; contrafreeloading; curiosity; effectiveness; motivation; optimal experience; play; positive psychology.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry
  • Animal Welfare
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Motivation*
  • Quality of Life*
  • Reward