In a seminal TED talk, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, "What makes a life worth living?" Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of "flow." The creative process can be a particularly fulfilling experience when you able to become so engrossed in an activity that you actually lose track of time. Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of flow as a unique state of concentration when you feel positive and energized, focused, and totally absorbed in the present moment. In sports, this is what is often referred to as reaching the “zone,” a physical and mental state of transcendence. Everything around you is forgotten except the task at hand while awareness and action become one.
Daniel Goleman observes that flow is possibly emotional intelligence at its best. Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness of one’s feelings, self-motivation, and empathy for the emotional experience of others. Goleman believes that emotional intelligence is essential for creativity and is an ability one can cultivate through being in flow. During the flow state, people are more productive because they are focused, calm, and self-satisfied. Like the experience of meditation, brain waves are actually in a state of relaxed alertness that facilitates inspiration and confidence. If you are painting, drawing, or constructing while in a flow state, you may feel like you are part of or one with your creation.
While you may already have experienced flow in your own life, the following suggestions can help you experience it through art making or other forms of expressive arts to enhance your creative potential:
• Challenge yourself. The flow state occurs when you engage in an activity that stretches your abilities, but is not so difficult that you become discouraged or bored. In other words, choose a creative activity and then engage in it a level slightly above your ability.
• Maintain your focus. Stay in the present moment and do not to judge how you are performing or what you are creating. As discussed in the previous chapter, just allow whatever you are working on to take shape and let yourself “disappear.” Anxiety prevents flow, so try a relaxation exercise like the mindfulness or meditation practice or play soothing music in the background; the tempo of about 70 beats per minute naturally induces a state of relaxed alertness.
• Give yourself time. An important ingredient of creativity is time. If you have to work creative expression into your schedule, try to give yourself enough time so that you are not torn away from the experience of deep concentration. Repeatedly stopping in the middle of what you love to do and from the experience of flow, more than anything, will stifle creativity.
• Allow yourself to become hooked. Once you find flow through a creative activity, return to it whenever you can. The more you experience this blissful state, the more you will want to return to it and the more you return to it, the easier you will “go with the flow” and find deeper satisfaction in the creative process.
Be well and find your flow,
Cathy A. Malchiodi, PhD
© 2014 Cathy Malchiodi
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.
Goleman, D. (2012). Emotional intelligence: 10th anniversary edition. New York: Random House.
Malchiodi, C. A. (2007). The art therapy sourcebook. New York: McGraw-Hill.