What is that creative itch that keeps wanting scratched?
Why do we get fretful when life’s obligations keep pulling us away from the creative work we want to do?
Why is it we expend so much of our time and energy on activities, sometimes quite demanding, that have little chance of bringing us wealth or fame?
And what is going on, on those good days when we are ‘in the zone’ and become completely immersed in what we are doing?
These are the questions at the heart of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book ‘Flow’, subtitled, in the 2002 edition, ‘the classic work on how to achieve happiness’. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, I am reliably informed chick-sent-mi-hail), a psychologist, wrote ‘Flow’ to bring his extensive academic research to a wider audience. It’s a chunky read, but it was hugely successful in bringing the concept of ‘flow’ into popular culture.
Flow is the psychological state of energised focus and full immersion in an activity in which we lose our sense of time. It isn’t quite joy exactly. It’s a kind of serious play that engages us deeply, motivates us, energises us and brings deep intrinsic satisfaction. No wonder we want more of it in our lives.
Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t only concerned with flow states achieved through creativity. The activities he examines include sports, business, religious practices, work of many kinds. But what characterises each of these, he finds, is that they are challenging tasks that we choose for ourselves, tasks that are achievable, but stretch us.
Flow makes us happier
Flow is really about understanding what makes us happy. And the good news is that it doesn’t depend on external circumstances. We can choose it. Csikszentmihalyi writes:
Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random choice. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it…it is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.
Happiness ensues…it’s an unintended side-effect of what Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl described as ‘one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.’ The satisfaction and enjoyment we gain from flow is of a far richer quality than the pleasures we gain from more passive or hedonistic activities.
Flow makes us smarter
Each time we achieve a challenging goal we have ourselves chosen to pursue – learning to play a new piece of music, writing a poem, knitting a sock – we become stronger, happier, more confident, more integrated.
The state of flow enlarges our self by immersing it in something larger. But Csiksentmihalyi, a scientist at heart, is at pains to point out that there is nothing mysterious or mystical going on:
When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction – whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music – she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. This system takes its form from the rules of the activity; its energy comes from the person’s attention. But it is a real system – subjectively as real as being part of a family, a corporation, or a team – and the self that is part of it expands its boundaries and becomes more complex that what it had been.
To enter a state of flow we need to strike a delicate balance between anxiety (too hard) and boredom (too easy). Get this balance right and the energised focus of flow pushes us towards growth and learning.
Flow has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.
Flow trains our minds
Flow is also effective resistance to the chaos of the mind left to its own devices:
We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel psychic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other by themselves without a hitch….the social roles culture prescribes then take care of shaping our minds for us, and we generally place ourselves on automatic pilot till the end of the day when is it time again to lose consciousness in sleep. But when we are left alone, with no demands on our attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness – a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.
Flow channels our wayward and often catastrophising mental energy and gives it a job. It’s the shepherd that takes the untrained collie worrying at sheep and trains it to herd them into a pen. Flow asserts our control over our attention, and therefore of our own internal experience.
When adversity threatens to paralyze us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction in which to invest psychic energy, a direction that lies outside the reach of external forces. When every aspiration is frustrated, a person still must seek a meaningful gaol around which to organize the self. Then, even though that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free.
Flow is subversive
So, next time you are tempted to ask yourself what’s the point of creative work when external rewards are so uncertain, remember this: It’s not trivial. It’s the path to inner freedom.
Because there is a reason why every authoritarian and totalitarian government seeks first to put its artists and writers in jail. There’s a reason why some governments and societies deliberately undermine the arts by chronically underfunding them, cutting arts education, telling us the arts and humanities are trivial, unserious, not a ‘proper’ career. Because a life of deep engagement with creative work will shape us into authentic, independent-minded, clear thinking, self-directed, free citizens.
And not everybody wants that for us.