Humans probably discovered it quite early as shown by pictures on cave walls, but psychology professor, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, first identified and popularized the concept in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He calls it “flow” because that’s how people in their studies described it. They said they were “carried on by the flow” or they felt as if they were “floating.”
The one element all successful creative people have in common is deep concentration on their goals. Time is distorted, external activities disappear and a person effortlessly withdraws into his own consciousness. Flow happens to scientists, athletes, architects, musicians and many others as they strive for excellence. They use all their energy, their focus, their desire toward an endeavor that has nothing to do with achieving fame or becoming rich.
In fact, studies have shown most of the wealthiest people on Earth say their happiness does not come from money. Rock bands probably had more fun before they became famous than after. Imagine how a tightrope walker feels when he reaches the end of the line.
I have friends who say they have to write, regardless of success. They feel terrible when they can’t. They don’t know what to do with themselves. In some ways it’s an addiction: writing gives them a high, a release of endorphins. They do it for the pleasure and excitement of it, for the love of it.
I have experienced flow while writing, and once or twice while swimming, and I can testify to the thrill of it. It’s what an astronomer feels when, after years of work, she discovers a new galaxy. It’s what the basketball player feels when he’s so totally into the game he can’t miss the basket. Jonas Salk must have felt it when he succeeded at creating a vaccine to combat polio. Flow can be shared. The composer of a beautiful piece of music can kindle flow for the listener as well as the artist.
Czikszentmihalyi believes that, despite the difficulties of life, we’re genetically programmed to experience pleasure. It’s no surprise it has been compared to an orgasm during sex.
So how can you achieve flow? You can’t just “think” your way into it. On the contrary, self-consciousness must disappear. Occasionally, it happens by chance. I first experienced it when I was in college working on a writing project. Later, when it happened, I was so excited I had to tell someone so I called a friend. Other than downing LSD, you might try establishing challenging goals and devoting your complete attention to them. The purest form of flow for humans is to break through their limitations, whether it’s writing or running a marathon.
I met Czikszentmihalyi twenty years ago when he gave a speech on flow at the University of Washington. Afterward, I asked him if I’m experiencing flow, does that mean what I’ve written is superior to my usual work? He said, “Not necessarily” but didn’t elaborate. Later, when I thought about his response, I realized flow is a side effect of achieving your personal best, not always a measure against the competition.
I'm curious to know how many others have reached that state of flow. Has it happened to all of us who write? Is it the reason we write?