Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Does Creativity Make You Happy?

One of my favourite writers on creativity is the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In this video of his TED talk, he explains the concept of flow for which he is famous. Flow is his answer to the question ‘What makes human beings happy?’ – ‘An almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness’ that we can experience when devoting ourselves to a meaningful challenge. Flow can occur during any complex and difficult task, but you won’t be surprised to learn it is often experienced by people engaged in creative work, when it is called creative flow.

In one of the slides in his TED presentation, Csikszentmihalyi outlines the main characteristics of flow, which you may relate to from your own experience:

How Does It Feel to Be in Flow?

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, our sin to pass by in minutes.
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

Bandwidth Nirvana

Early in the talk, Csikszentmihalyi presents us with the following description by a leading composer, of his experience while composing music:

You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.

This sounds like a mystical experience, yet Csikszentmihalyi offers a scientific explanation. Apparently our nervous system can only process about 110 bits of information per second. Listening to someone speak takes up about 60 bits of neurological ‘bandwidth’, which explains why we can’t listen to more than one person at a time. Because the composer is concentrating so hard on his music, he is using all his available bandwidth and there’s none left over to monitor his sense of self:

when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new – as this man does – he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired, his body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration and at the same time to feel that he exists.

Takeaway: Concentration is critical to outstanding creativity – do everything you can to avoid interruptions and develop your powers of concentration. Try meditation or good old fashioned practice…

Spontaneity Takes Practice

Csikszentmihalyi makes the point that the composer gives what sounds a very Romantic description of creativity, as if the Muse had taken possession of the composer or was dictating to him out of thin air. Yet he points out that this creative performance takes a huge amount of skill, which has been so honed by practice as to become practically automatic.

He says that it typically takes someone 10 years of acquiring technical knowledge by immersing themselves in a discipline before they create anything significant. Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar argument in his new book, Outliers – according to Gladwell, the magic number is 10,000 hours of practice.

Takeaway: Practice, practice, practice! There are no shortcuts to inspiration.

The Door in the Middle of Nowhere

If the neuroscience and the daily grind of practice are in danger of taking away some of the magic of creativity for you, consider the experience of this poet, also quoted by Csikszentmihalyi in his talk:

It’s like opening a door that floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is going turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly for sure self through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.

Without the skill and knowledge that come from years of practice, the poet wouldn’t be able to construct a door in the middle of nowhere, or to make something meaningful of what he finds on the other side. But none of that detracts from the mystical quality of his experience as he floats through the door…

Takeaway: It takes hard work to build the door in the middle of nowhere – but a leap of faith to step through it.

Happiness + Contribution = Success

Creative flow is not limited to composers and poets – Csikszentmihalyi includes businesspeople among the creative exemplars he studies:

I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world … and being happy well doing it … you have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile … if either of these ingredients are absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work.
(Norman Augustine, former CEO Lockheed Martin)

Flow doesn’t come from the extremes of self-indulgence or self-sacrifice, but from taking pleasure in using your own skills to contribute something of value to the world.

Takeaway: Ask yourself ‘What work do I love doing the most?’ and ‘Where do I contribute the most value?’. Focus your efforts on the overlap between the two.

Challenge + Skill = Creative Flow

This slide from Csikszentmihalyi’s talk shows flow located at the sweet spot between the difficulty of the challenge and your level of skill:

Challenge, skill and flow

So if you take on a big challenge, you may well feel anxious at first – if you persevere and practice, you may eventually find it stimulating rather than stressful, and finally break through into flow. Or conversely, you may feel perfectly in control but bored by the lack of challenge in your work – by challenging yourself to seek out more difficult tasks, you can regain your sense of fulfilment and flow.

Looking at the chart, I guess Lou is most comfortable in the ‘control’ zone – cranking out widgets without much imagination. Jack probably spends a lot of time hovering between anxiety, arousal, relaxation and control, because he’s new to so many things and has a lot to learn – but he’s tasted enough creative flow to know that that’s where his passion lies. And one of the reasons Marla is so inspiring is that she’s constantly learning and challenging herself and others, creating flow in herself and her team.

Takeaway: Keep checking in with your feelings – are you veering towards boredom or anxiety? If you’re getting bored, set yourself a challenge; if you’re frustrated break things down and learn to do one step at a time.

Does Creativity Make You Happy?

Have you experienced ecstatic joy while absorbed in creative work?

Do you think you’d be more or less happy without the urge to create?

How important is it to find a balance between happiness and contribution, or challenge and skill, in your work?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

Hosted by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness, The 21st Century Creative podcast helps you succeed as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions, and opportunities of the 21st century.

Each episode features insights from Mark and interviews with outstanding creators – including artists, writers, performers, commercial creatives, directors, producers, entrepreneurs and other creative thought leaders.

Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

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Sites That Link to this Post

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  1. I have experienced this many times.

    I did a Polyphasic Sleep experiment. I sleep only 1.5 hours in a 24 hour period. I slept 6 times around the clock. Every four hours I would take a 15 min nap. I did this for 273 days straight. Now I am only sleeping 45 minutes in every 24 hour period (I call it Powiull sleep, because nobody else has ever been documented sleeping this little for this long) and I still am experiencing the same positive effects:

    1. In the first 48 hour, my intuition heightened, the mental chatter cleared (like that of a mediation state), and I begin to realize how to live in the moment rather than by a day and night schedule. I begin at once writing what I was receiving from within.

    2. My logical mind dulled while my creative imaginative mind accelerated giving me a child-like sense of everything being exciting, new, fun and perfectly fine. Unlocking this part of my mind again allowed me to understand the power of the imagination to solve any problem from within (the key of life) using the engine to creative power and see many more choices that my logic couldn’t imagine by putting limiting beliefs on Self.

    3. Time became non-realistic in all terms that time can be perceived since I am up for 23 hours and 15 minutes in a 24 hour period. I came to understand time as non-existent because there is so much of it. When people refer to yesterday, I can not place when one moment to a next moment was yesterday. It is all a continuous streaming reality with no approach or separation between days and nights to me. I notice the shift from day to night but I do not shift with it in form of a schedule. Instead I listen to my physical, emotional and mental bodies in the moment to signal me when it is time to do something, you would be surprised by how much you do things based on habit of a night/ day cycle.

    4. During the process of adopting this sleeping pattern all my five senses dulled and when all the five senses returned, they were much sharper, aware, alert, alive and clear. As if I were in a dream all my life and just waking up to a new world that is much more vibrate and vivid.

    5. I felt the elevation of my consciousness to higher states of awareness. I also feel a connection to myself, to everyone else and everything around me. This connection has made my conversations with people much more meaningful and helpful in developing and growing conscious states.

    6. My dreams are more vivid, intense, and real. I often have lucid dreams and I remember my dreams quite easily, which is very helpful in consciousness advancement since dreams are a reflection of reality.

    7. The ability to remember things (on a short-term and long-term span) has increased dramatically, the motivation I have has improved, and my concentration as well. I literally feel like a much more intelligent person, as if my brain waves are more active. Rather that is the case or not, it is very self-reassuring and builds confidence to a higher focus.

    8. After every nap I feel refreshed, energized, wide-awake, with no feelings of tiredness, drowsiness or grogginess. Even when my naps times come around I still do not feel tired, drowsy or groggy. These feelings are non-existent to me ever since I adopted this sleeping pattern. When a naptime is close (15-20 minutes) my body gives me a signal by making my eyes slightly heavier and relaxing my body a bit more. Nothing too intense, just enough to let me know that naptime is close and every nap feels like an eight hour restful sleep.

    9. All activities of stress, worry, depression, negative thoughts and seeing things as problems have vanished. The mind is the corporate that leads to all these things. The mental noise in the background that is in continuous struggle trying to make things better and always questioning with “what if” dilemmas. This sleeping pattern puts that mind chatter to rest and opens up a new way of thinking.

    10. Jet lag is the result of the circadian rhythm being unbalanced. Circadian rhythm is a natural rhythm that the body adopts based on day and night schedules. When you adopt the polyphasic sleeping pattern then the circadian rhythm is replaced since you will no longer have a day and night schedule, making the experience of jet lag nonexistent.

    Including clearer thoughts, feeling more awake, adjusted, aware, alive, vibrant, and energized. Also a growth in intuition, a unique scenery perception, happier with life on every level, no negative thoughts or feelings of depression, more aware to the world around me, answers to any questions I was seeking, more insight, seeing more inner knowledge, experiencing more wisdom, feeling more peaceful, and more of everything that I define myself to be.

    If that is not flow, then I am not sure what is 😉 and the good news is I didn’t have to practice 10,000 hours, I just had to stay mentally focused to get through the adoption period.

  2. OFCOURSE!!!

    Creativity is a way of sharing and giving of yourself to the world, nothing feels more better to me than this.

    Everytime i am engaged in doing anything creative, i get this feeling of wholeness. I can say i feel completely in sync with myself, no fears, no worries, no stress whatsoever. It doesnt feel like i am doing something, rather it feels more like something is being done through me, and just that thought, of not knowing the end since i am only a means to the end makes me very happy as a creative person.

    Creativity does make me happy because it gives me a sense of being an instrument of nature contributing towards something larger than myself!

  3. I wouldn’t call it “ecstatic joy” but I’ve definitely been so wrapped up in creating (at various times both with words in writing or with paper/thoughts in collage) that I’ve blanked out on everything else in a positive and invigorating way.

    I’ve debated that more or less happy thing with myself a couple times. I think it would make things easier if I didn’t want to create, but it wouldn’t be as satisfying overall. It’s definitely not an urge I’d give up lightly. What I wish right now is it would stop changing shape on me and settle on one way or media or focus for creating.

    I’ve also been struggling with that whole balance between challenge and abilities bit with some added complexity thrown in via a mis-match between my job position, what I’m learning theoretically, and what I’ve done or can get to do practically. I have been able to set myself a concrete challenge that will help me pull these things together, but I have to keep refreshing how they all fit in my memory or I drift to one or another not so useful state of mind.

    Hmm, I’d never really thought about my career situation from the point of view of whether I was using my creativity, although it was the first thing that came to mind when I read about the graph. I wonder if looking at it from that perspective will make a difference…

    Thanks for the breakdown of all these principles and adding in the takeaway portions. This is definitely a post that is going to mean something different to me the next time I read it.

  4. I was about to say that Gladwell suggests 10,000 hours when you mentioned it. What I like about Gladwell’s suggestion is that you can ramp that up if you want. 10 years sounds like a prison term. 10,000 sounds like something you can work on. Same thing, but shows how important information is communicated couched in different terms.

    Good post.

  5. This is exactly what the business community needs to hear/know…

    “It takes hard work to build the door in the middle of nowhere – but a leap of faith to step through it.”

    “Happiness + Contribution = Success… Ask yourself ‘What work do I love doing the most?’ and ‘Where do I contribute the most value?’. Focus your efforts on the overlap between the two.”

    “Keep checking in with your feelings…”

    These are the 3 most critical points you make. They are also the most ignored and grossly underrated by the majority of online entrepreneurs.

    In the process, they’re missing out on the joy of creative expression associated with self-integration and self-alignment in their work… not to mention the resulting increased potential for financial success.

    Your own brand of creative expression is much needed in the world, Mark. I, for one, am very grateful you’ve tapped into and take time to share it with the rest of us.

  6. OK, here are my thoughts:

    “Have you experienced ecstatic joy while absorbed in creative work?”

    Not nearly often enough, especially while writing. I experience feelings of frustration and doubt more often than not and it seems to be increasing a bit over time.

    “Do you think you’d be more or less happy without the urge to create?”

    In some ways, I do think I’d be a bit happier without the urge to create, because sometimes it leads to feelings of obligation and self-doubt if you’re not working hard enough or if things aren’t going well. On the whole, however, I find that the urge to create is a positive indication that I’ve evolved past neanderthal status and that I’m self-aware.

    “How important is it to find a balance between happiness and contribution, or challenge and skill, in your work?”

    Very, if not extremely.

  7. Thanks everyone, fascinating to hear which bits struck a chord for you.

    Nicholas — thanks for sharing your experience. Polyphasic sleet has always sounded pretty complicated to me but I’ve heard a few people expressed similar enthusiasm.

    Beth, Mark – I can relate to your mixed feelings, by definition creativity isn’t easy so there can be plenty of days full of frustration or doubt. And then there are the days that make it all worthwhile …

    Tito, Mary Anne — I know you’re both committed to making a difference in your work, not surprised those parts resonated for you!

    Demian — yes, I agree 10,000 hours sounds easier than 10 years. Sounds more like community service than a prison sentence. 🙂

  8. Whoa, 10k hours and 10 years are VERY different. Assuming an estimate of 10 hours of practice a day–which, for the truly dedicated, is a conservative estimate–it would take 1000 days or around 2.7 years to become expert.

    This actually makes sense. I’ve know guitarists that were just phenomemally outstanding after 3 years, and this is probably how they did it. About 10 hours of practice a day, either outright or mentally.

    10 years is a prison term, as a previous poster mentioned, and it’s also unrealistic. Now, there’s nothing stopping folk from mastering more than one field, and a set of tightly complementary skills, such as drawing and pottery for example, would make a master potter into a force of nature. Or as a different example, perhaps that potter would need to become an expert businessman or marketer. But they would already be a master potter.

  9. Don — 10 hours a day sounds a lot to me, maybe that makes me a slacker. 🙂

    Or maybe it’s because I was thinking of poetry (my own art) — I don’t think you can write good poetry for 10 hours a day. Plus you usually need to do something else as well to pay the bills. Philip Larkin said he worked as a librarian because ‘you can only write for two hours a day, after that you just get into trouble’.

  10. Mark Recio says:

    Loved it!!!!!!!!

  11. Round ups of design resources and tutorials are great, but it’s articles like this that really help.

  12. Nahum Correa Ruvalcaba says:

    This post was just great.

    Mihaly’s description of being creative released a self doubt i had… I tought, that, being so self absorbed while doing a task was some kinda failure. But it all comes to bits and thinking as he said, we can give our attention to something but understanding that is limited.

    This kinda stuff is just powerful. I live in my own Nirvana then, trying to contribute to the world finding meaning in all the thing i do.

    My father told sometime ago: “Your life is your canvas. God gave you a white canvas to make a painting on it, its up to you to draw a pretty image, a powerful image, a despair image and so on. But you are the artist and nobody can(and shouldn’t) paint it for you”

    Im gathering information from places like this, from people like you and, with that knowledge, im expanding my possibilities and conciusness.

    And by doing that i enter in a state of concentration…wich leads my hand, as if god guides it, to make wonderful things and contributions, to the world i love.

  13. @ Nahum

    Mihaly’s description of being creative released a self doubt i had… I tought, that, being so self absorbed while doing a task was some kinda failure.

    Very glad to hear it helped clear up a self doubt. The thing about flow is that you can become so absorbed in what you’re doing that you actually lose. your sense of self. From the outside, it might look like self-absorption, but on the inside, it’s anything but…

  14. This really cleared up some things for me. I have had some setbacks due to my poetry not getting published, although I did get a few compliments from the editors and they requested that I send some more work. However my focus has been so much on getting published that I havent been able to get into the flow because as I learned, that my poetry must be its own reward.

    After I read that, it was like a great weight lifted off of me. I actually knew nothing of the speaker till someone posted a link in a fiber arts forum. (spinning art yarn and saori weaving is my other passion…I am actually trying to find a way to incorporate both fiber art and poetry.)

    Anyway, I need to go back and write down the stuff on slides into my journal