Thoughts from the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Nancy Holder, HWA Trustee
I recently completed a five-course certificate in Positive Psychology, the focus of which is to learn about achieving greater happiness, increasing human flourishing, and functioning at an optimal level. One of the most prominent psychologists in the field of positive psychology is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me High Cheeks Sent Me High.” For the rest of this article, I’ll refer to him as CS.) He has written a number of books; published in 1991, Flow was one of the first to investigate the phenomenon, and remains influential.
As writers, many of us have experienced flow, which CS describes this way:
“ …[W]e have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, master of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like” (3).
I’m not sure that I feel a sense of control as much as a sense of harmony when I fall into flow while I’m writing, but I do agree with CS’s sentiment that this what my writing life should be like. As Ray Bradbury once said, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.” It sounds to me like Bradbury wrote in flow a lot.
So how to achieve that flow, and how to stay there? CS states:
In our studies, we found that every flow activity… provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities (74).
He goes on to show a graph that lists “Challenges” on the vertical axis and “Skills” on the horizontal. Low skills plus high challenges equal anxiety. Anxiety impedes flow. Low challenges plus high skills equal boredom. Boredom impedes flow. And importantly: “It is not skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have”(75).
It’s been my experience that we writers question ourselves way too much: we wonder if we’re good enough; if what we’re writing is good enough; if the way we’re promoting ourselves is good enough. This questioning causes/reflects what CS refers to as “psychic disorder”—“information that conflicts with existing intentions, or distracts us from carrying them out.” I would argue that because of our uncertainty about being good enough, we inadvertently sabotage our chances of falling into flow specifically because these are questions we can never get answered. We can’t obtain the information we want about being good enough. So we dither around on Facebook during those precious hours we have carved out of daily life to write—or binge watch TV, or decide to do more research—doing just about anything but writing.
What we are disrupting ourselves from doing is, in CS’s words, “join[ing] all experience into a meaningful pattern” (7). And for a writer, that meaningful pattern is writing. A writer writes. What happens is that we forget that writing is a form of creative growth—the growth of our interior lives—our ability not only to access what we want to investigate, but how we want to communicate our discoveries. We are innate seekers of meaningful patterns. We allow exterior questions that don’t pertain to our original goal—to write well—to fuzz out any chance to fall into flow and instead, drop us into psychic disorder.
Likewise we may be expecting too much of ourselves by setting challenges too high, such as insisting that we write 5000 words a day every day or plot out an entire novel in one sitting. Or maybe we’re aiming too low—maybe we’re writing derivative work that even we find uninspiring because we’re afraid to tackle the project that speaks more loudly to us. Both of these approaches will restrict our chances to fall into flow.
CS has much more to say about experiencing writing as an optimal experience—as flow—but these are a few basic concepts to consider. For me, the most important takeaway of this book is that by applying the principals he sets forth in Flow in a methodical and dispassionate way, we can grow as writers and enjoy our writing lives much more than, perhaps, we have been. I recommend this book highly.
May you enjoy hours and hours of writing in flow!