When the happiness and creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was studying how painters work, he noticed an odd thing. When their painting was going well they didn't care about getting tired, hungry or uncomfortable, they just carried on.
But when the painting was finished, they rapidly lost interest in it.
What was this special state of mind that seemed to absorb the whole of your being? Csikszentmihalyi called it a 'flow state'. It's the experience of being fully engaged with what you're currently doing.
When you're in a flow state:
- an hour can pass in the blink of an eye,
- you feel what you are doing is important,
- you're not self-conscious,
- action and awareness merges,
- you feel in full control,
- and the experience is intrinsically rewarding.
To create a flow experience, you need:
- to be internally motivated, i.e. you are doing the activity mainly for its own sake,
- the task should stretch your skills almost to the limits, but not so much that it makes you too anxious,
- there should be clear short-term goals for what you are trying to achieve,
- and you should get immediate feedback on how you are doing, i.e. you can see how the painting, photo, blog post etc. is turning out.
The experience of flow has been studied amongst surgeons, writers, artists, scientists, athletes and people just socialising and playing games. The experience of peak performance is very similar, whatever the activity.
Flow states require a balance, though, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
"Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act."
It's not always easy to achieve but being in a state of flow is a beautiful thing.
Image credit: Catherine Mullhaupt
Making Habits, Breaking Habits
In his new book, Jeremy Dean--psychologist and author of PsyBlog--looks at how habits work, why they are so hard to change, and how to break bad old cycles and develop new healthy, creative, happy habits.
→ "Making Habits, Breaking Habits", is available now on Amazon.Reviews
The Bookseller, “Editor’s Pick,” 10/12/12 “Sensible and very readable…By far the most useful of this month’s New You offerings.”
Kirkus Reviews, 1/1/13 “Making changes does take longer than we may expect—no 30-day, 30-pounds-lighter quick fix—but by following the guidelines laid out by Dean, readers have a decent chance at establishing fulfilling, new patterns.”
Publishers Weekly, 12/10/12 “An accessible and informative guide for readers to take control of their lives.”