Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi found that certain types of people are better than others at achieving and staying in flow. Flow is that feeling of immersion that can happen when we’re engrossed in an activity. According to research, the phenomenon is experienced most often and consistently by artists, musicians and athletes. Amongst them, those most likely to find flow are naturally curious, persistent, low on egotism, and have a high propensity to engage in activities for their own intrinsic pleasure. “Autotelic,” deriving from two Greek words; auto, meaning self, and telos meaning goal, means when something is its own reward, the motivation and challenge of getting good at it turns into a path to almost complete emotional self-sufficiency.
Csíkszentmihályi interviewed artists and musicians in order to understand what flow felt like. Their reports — 7000 of them — were staggeringly similar: each described a feeling of total immersion and intrinsic enjoyment, a loss of a sense of time and other needs, and an almost out-of-body experience, where the activity was automatic, without much conscious effort. Think of a clarinetist observing her own fingers, letting the instrument play itself.
The most important thing about flow is that it only happens when a person is nestled in a psychological state between challenge and control; immersed in an activity with which she already possess a fair amount of skill and evolved technique. One cannot lose herself in a concerto, after all, until she has long-practiced her scales. Csíkszentmihályi went as far as to say a minimum of 10 years of skill-building was required to even get close. “It takes that long,” he said, “to be able to begin to change something in a way that is better than what was there before.” In this sense, flow is simply a heightened echelon of creativity, and only happens when one knows what to do and how to do it, and knows how well they are doing, where they are going and feels adequately challenged. In other words, if you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place, and if the challenge is too great or insufficient, flow is unreachable. Here’s an idea:
In the spirit of autotelic joy, let go of the goal of flow, and simply work on getting yourself into its arena.
Cultivate your own intrinsic motivation by finding out what you’re curious about and exploring it for its own sake.
Put in the hours — the years — and take the technical and emotional risks to work towards a state of mastery.
Practice removing distractions and immersing yourself in an environment where you can focus. Then get lost.
Notice when you’re bored or apathetic, too relaxed, or too anxious or aroused.
Notice in which activities you feel a simultaneous sense of excitement, challenge and control. Take note of when you feel a loss of self-consciousness — your body and identity disappearing from awareness, while at the same time feeling the possibility of success — a sense of optimism — in what you’re working on. This moment is the portal to peak experience. Repeated, it can be a leaping off point for creative innovation, satisfaction and growth. It’s also a reliable route to happiness. “Perform with elan, brilliance and dash,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi, “at concert pitch.”
PS: “An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)
Esoterica: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi was born in 1934 in Fiume, then part of the Kingdom of Italy, now known as Rijeka, Croatia. His father was a Hungarian diplomat. After the Second World War and the ascendance of the Communist regime in Hungary in 1949, his family relocated to Rome and opened a restaurant. At 22, Csíkszentmihályi moved to Chicago to study happiness and creativity. He’d seen a lecture by Carl Jung in Zurich, where Jung discussed the imaginative devices people used to recover from the devastation of the Second World War. In 1975, Csíkszentmihályi coined the term Flow and emerged as the father of positive psychology. He led research at the University of Chicago, Lakeforest College and Claremont Graduate University. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi passed away at home in Claremont, California on October 20, 2021. He was 87.
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“Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)
Join Ellie Harold for “Intuitive Painting: Permission to Paint Expressively,” designed especially for mature women artists of all skill levels who wish to explore this medium for soulful exploration. The retreat provides attractive accommodations (your own room!) along with lightly structured activities for centering, relaxation and low stress art-making. You’ll have plenty of free time to muse, paint, write and reflect while enjoying the colors, textures and flavors of San Miguel. This Retreat has the potential to transform not only your art but your life! You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for further creating. Details at www.EllieHarold.com.
The move to Northern California spurred my desire to paint the landscape – motivated in part by the fear that I would wake up one day and it would all be gone! I had some kind of doomsday concern, tantamount to extreme climate change or bombs going off like Hiroshima —something drastic.
The Wildfires of 2017 were traumatic, we experienced three on our land that year.
In processing the fire experiences and living with the constant awareness that what happened then can happen again. I produced a short film entitled:: From the Ashes – Fire, Survival. and Renewal, about how our community responded to the Redwood Complex Fire 2017.The is film available for free screenings to community fire councils and art institutions. I am working on part two.
In 2020, largely due to the ensuing California wildfires, we chose to sell our 195 acre place and move back to the East Coast, where our families live and we are creating a new life and farm.
I am still witnessing and interpreting the landscape.
Jaye Alison Moscariello