Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Magic of Creative Flow

Originally posted in Evolution Ezine at the following site:

Artists describe it as “rapture”.
Mystics describe it as “ecstasy”.
Athletes describe it “being in the zone”.
Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu describes it as a state where "perception and understanding come to a stop and the spirit begins to move where it wants”.
And Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hi Chicksent-me-hi), a research psychologist and former chairman of the psychology department at the University of Chicago who has devoted his life to the study of flow, describes it as an optimal experience during which people feel that they are engaged in a creative unfolding of something greater than the task at hand. As a result of this engagement, they experience a deep sense of fulfillment and spontaneous joy.

Flow is achieved any time when we are able to experience full, positive engagement with what we are doing, that is, whenever we are able to put everything we have into the engagement. The nature of the activity, may it be art, problem-solving, innovation, games, sports, work or hobbies, does not matter in the least. It is during the total un-self-conscious tuning into the present as well as the activity in which we are engaged when our emotions are positively energized and completely aligned with the task at hand.

Csikszentmihalyi has identified and outlined several elements of the experience of flow, of which the following six are the most characteristic:

The flow is a state of self-forgetfulness.

While in the flow, we are performing at their peak, and we are so fully absorbed in their task at hand that welose all self-consciousness. Moments of flow are egoless. When experiencing the flow, we are unconcerned with how we are performing, or whether we will succeed or fail. In fact, we are not even consciously experiencing satisfaction or joy. In fact, if we were to stop and think, “Oh how happy I am” or “I’m doing this so well”, the flow may as such be interrupted by the shift of focus from the task to the self. And feelings of deep satisfaction, elation, fulfilment that accompany the flow are usually consciously realized in retrospect.

In the flow, there is no perception of space and time.

While in the flow, the outside world fades away, while full focus is maintained on the task at hand. Distractions are excluded from consciousness. Performing artists will become unaware of the audience, and in fact, after the performance is over, they may not remember much about it too. A skier who won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in 1994, when interviewed about her experience, said that she remembered nothing about it except being immersed in relaxation. She said: “I felt like a waterfall”. While in the flow, time becomes an ever-present "now" in which awareness and action are merged into one. Instead of the individual being in charge of the process, the process seems to be in charge of itself. Each step emerges out of the previous one seemingly in one, single extended moment.

In the flow, the brain is in a “cool” state.

The quality of attention while in the flow is highly focused, yet completely relaxed and at ease. When people reach this effortless state of flow, their brain actually quiets down even though the activity may be quite challenging. But once we become totally attuned to the task at hand, as well as are positively and emotionally immersed into it, our brains work unhindered by any other concerns such as worry or fear. The zone of flow is described as an “oasis of cortical experience”, with only a bare minimum of mental energy being expended.

The flow occurs when the activity is “autotelic”.

In other words, the activity is done just for its own sake, and is perceived as an end in itself. Researchers have found that flow is achieved more easily by artists who just focus on their artwork, instead of focusing on the future benefits of fame and wealth that their artwork may bring. The same results have been found in self-reports from athletes, writers and innovators, who have begun their tasks at hand or undertaken their specific challenges not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. In this case, they are perhaps perceived them as opportunities to try something new, to excel in something, or to stretch and outdo themselves.

While in the flow, people are tireless.

When the brain is operating at peak performance, even very challenging tasks that require very hard work are experienced as refreshing or replenishing rather than draining. This occasionally may have some negative side-effects, because the brain does get tired eventually and fatigue may ensue. Most people who have learned to get into the zone of flow usually know when to take a break or stop working on their tasks for a while, but at the same time also know that they can get back into it anytime they want.

The flow is “addictive”.

This happens for two reasons:

1) Because the flow frequently occurs when an activity challenges us to the fullest of their capacities, our skills will tend to improve or increase in the process and therefore the next challenge would need to be heightened for us to get into the flow, like a larger dose of a drug.

2) The flow feels good and is intrinsically rewarding; for this reason, people tend to want to repeat the experience of flow as frequently as possible. An owner of a large retail company once described the elation he felt in applying some new systems in the organization of his company to improve company-customer relations. His high level of involvement in the project could be felt tangibly as he talked about it, and it could be seen in his shining eyes the excitement and rapture that he felt. As soon as his project was complete, and when the new systems were running perfectly, he immediately embarked upon a new project with “even better” systems for improving the company's customer relations that he had in the meantime discovered. In other words, he was hooked on the flow.

How easy is it then to experience flow?

The whole key to getting into the flow is achieving the state of self-forgetfulness that the experts stress on, by totally focusing on the task at hand with positive expectation and total emotional engagement. Usually, our brains will create some “static” in the first few minutes until they becomes completely aligned with the task at hand. By then as if by magic, we would be suddenly thrust into the zone experiencing the magic of the flow.

P.S. Ismini Apostoli is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, practicing in Greece and offering online services throughout the world. She is particularly interested in self- esteem, self-development and self-actualization and helping people uncover their special gifts and talents. You can find out more by visiting the following site:

1 comment:

Il Mare Atelier said...

Very insightful! But sounds pretty tough to achieve! :-)