There is a fascinating concept/phenomenon in psychology that I have experienced many, many times over the years, but have only come to fully understand recently, thanks to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist renowned for his study of creativity and happiness, as well as being the owner of an unpronounceable name.. He is known for a theory – a state of mind really – he calls Flow.
I have always noticed that when I am fully engaged in something, usually a creative activity like painting or writing, I can lose myself completely in the task. In fact, I have been known to paint for hours on end, for entire days at a time, hyper-focussed with absolutely no awareness of the passage of time. My husband has returned home on many occasions after having been gone the entire day, shocked to find me still painting, half-starved, exhausted and somewhat disoriented at seeing him back so soon.. Exactly what time is it?
According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is a mental state of pure union between creator and creation. This is not a religious notion; I am referring to you, the creator, and the targetted creative activity. Flow can be attained during many kinds of activities, but my own experience with Flow is usually connected to a creative activity of some sort. Certain very specific criteria need to occur simultaneously for Flow to engage. Most importantly there must be a deep level of concentration, with the task at hand being neither too easy nor too difficult for the creator. Ideally, the task should be just slightly above the skill ability of the creator. There should be a certain level of effort expended to complete the task at hand; a combination of high challenge and high skills. However, if it`s too difficult and too much effort is required, then Flow will not occur. Similarly, a complete lack of effort will not engage this state of mind.
In my own experience, Flow is that point in creation where you are so absorbed in what you are doing, so at one with your object of creativity that you become unaware of your surroundings. You have stepped away from your ego self and entered into a mind set that is in complete union with the task at hand. You are neither extremely calm, nor are you anxious, but somewhere right in the middle of those two states. The creative juices are flowing freely and you are experiencing pure joy, frozen in time, blissfully unaware of any external distractions. Positive emotions are contained, channelled and aligned with the task at hand. All notion of time disappears and physical feelings like hunger, thirst and fatigue are absent. You experience a great inner clarity and serenity. The feeling of Flow is nothing short of euphoric and is probably the reason why artists are drawn to create. It is an utterly addictive state.
Anyone who has experienced Flow will immediately know what I am talking about. Those who have not will be perplexed by it. I suspect though that most people at one time or another will have experienced it to some extent. Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve Flow more often than the average person. Some of these personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a strong desire to perform activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality. These individuals seek high-action-opportunity and high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth. They have an innate drive to accomplish things for their own satisfaction. What others may think is unimportant and of little concern.
Personally I have always called it being “in the zone”. It is the magic that happens when the right-brain is fully engaged in doing what it does best – creating. Obtaining the state of Flow can’t be forced. Any attempt to control a situation in order to achieve this state of mind will only work against it.
So how do you get there? You must simply find a challenging activity you love to do, give it your full attention, and do it for yourself and not others. It is when you stop consciously trying to obtain the state of Flow that you will soon find your self immersed in it.