Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who has devoted his career to researching happiness and fulfilment. His research has shown that although people enjoy indulging in pleasure, such as eating and drinking, sex and shopping, this eventually wears off, leaving us feeling unsatisfied. True happiness comes from learning and developing our skills to overcome meaningful challenges. When we are fully absorbed in doing this, we experience what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow:
Flow – An almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.
(from Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
When we are in flow, we are fully absorbed in whatever we are doing and find it easy to achieve peak performance. The experience is accompanied by intense feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
Flow can occur in many spheres of human activity, physical and mental. Athletes call it being in ‘the zone’, but we don’t have to run a marathon or win an Olympic medal do experience flow – we have all experienced the enjoyment of becoming absorbed in doing a task well.
Flow is particularly common in artistic and creative spheres, during those times when ideas, images, feelings and/or words seem to flow easily and the work takes on a momentum of its own. Many artists make big sacrifices in other areas of their lives so that they can pursue creative flow. Professional creatives have typically had powerful experiences of flow, and can relate to the intense feeling of satisfaction when they enter flow – and equally intense feelings of frustration when they are unable to get into flow in their work.
Csikszentmihalyi identifies the following nine characteristics of flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way. Knowing what you are trying to achieve gives your actions a sense of purpose and meaning.
- There is immediate feedback to your actions. Not only do you know what you are trying to achieve, you are also clear about how well you are doing it. This makes it easier to adjust for optimum performance. It also means that by definition flow only occurs when you are performing well.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills. If the challenge is too difficult we get frustrated; if it is too easy, we get bored. Flow occurs when we reach an optimum balance between our abilities and the task in hand, keeping us alert, focused and effective.
- Action and awareness are merged. We have all had experiences of being in one place physically, but with our minds elsewhere – often out of boredom or frustration. In flow, we are completely focused on what we are doing in the moment.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness. When we are not distracted by worries or conflicting priorities, we are free to become fully absorbed in the task.
- There is no worry of failure. A single-minded focus of attention means that we are not simultaneously judging our performance or worrying about things going wrong.
- Self-consciousness disappears. When we are fully absorbed in the activity itself, we are not concerned with our self-image, or how we look to others. While flow lasts, we can even identify with something outside or larger than our sense of self – such as the painting or writing we are engaged in, or the team we are playing in.
- The sense of time becomes distorted. Several hours can ‘fly by’ in what feels like a few minutes, or a few moments can seem to last for ages.
- The activity becomes ‘autotelic’ – meaning it is an end in itself. Whenever most of the elements of flow are occurring, the activity becomes enjoyable and rewarding for its own sake. This is why so many artists and creators report that their greatest satisfaction comes through their work. As Noel Coward put it, ‘Work is more fun than fun’.
So that’s the theory – read how to put it into practice through coaching in How Coaching Creates Creative Flow.