Being creative makes us happy – that’s true – but not just because we just enjoy dreaming up new ideas and having flights of fancy. In fact, research tells us that what we really love about creativity is the daily drudgery – the slow and frequently painful trudge towards getting it done and mastering our creative pursuit.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pronounced six-cent-mihaly) is the Hungarian psychologist who first coined the term flow in 1975.
He describes flow as being an automatic pilot-like mental state you enter when you’re totally absorbed in a task. When you’re in a state of flow, you lose track of time, you forget all about checking Facebook, your mug of coffee goes stone cold.
Whilst flow is often linked to creativity, it isn’t something that’s only experienced when you engage in ‘creative’ activities. Some folk reach it by penning poetry, but others get it when they’re fixing a car, gaming, experimenting in a lab, playing tennis or writing code.
But one thing’s for sure – achieving flow seems super-important for our overall happiness and wellbeing. Indeed, one psychological experiment where Csikszentmihaly denied people access to their favourite flow-inducing activities had to be aborted early when his subjects displayed symptoms of psychiatric disorder – after 48 hours.
Whilst people achieve flow in different ways, you can’t reach a state of flow by doing any old task.
Flow-inducing tasks all have a certain set of characteristics and crucially, says Csikszentmihaly, all involve being demanding in some way. Not so difficult that you don’t know where to start or so big, hairy and audacious that you want to run a mile and hide but demanding enough that you want to master it – and you think you stand a chance.
For a task to give you flow it needs push you but not overwhelm you. It needs to be achievable but not easy-peasy. It needs to intrigue you – so you want to engage with it and get better at doing it.
To reach a state of flow writes Csikszentmihaly: “the task must stretch the mind and body in a way that makes the effort itself a ‘delicious reward’”.
Motivated to master
The author Daniel Pink breaks down mastery further in his book Drive where he writes that there are three essential elements to it:
- Firstly, mastery – which he defines as ‘becoming ever-better at something you care about’ – requires you to adopt an open mindset towards the task in hand. You don’t achieve mastery when you’re a know-it-all or when you feel there’s nothing that others can teach you. You only achieve mastery when you adopt what psychologist Dr Carol S Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’ – when you’re open to learn, grow and develop – and when you welcome being proved wrong.
- Secondly, Pink writes that mastery only comes when you put in the effort – when you show up every day and put in the time. He quotes research from Prof K Anders Ericsson whose well known research into expertise finds that it takes around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an ‘expert’ at your chosen field. It takes a certain type of gritty person to keep going and keep taking the knocks – but it’s that perseverance that also leads to you mastering your pursuit. Or at least getting close to it…
- Lastly, mastery according to Pink, is something you can never really attain – and it’s that which keeps us going. Pink says that mastery is always something you strive for but is always (just) out of reach. He writes, “You can approach it. You can hone in on it. You can get really, really close to it. But you can never touch it.” The very fact that mastery always eludes you – always hovers just beyond your grasp – is what keeps you motivated.
So, writing, playing, designing, singing or performing – becoming better at anything you care about – is hard. But it’s that challenge to improve and master your craft that makes the experience ultimately so rewarding and fulfilling.
Whilst dreaming up new ideas can bring its own pleasure of course, it’s only when you put those ideas into action – when you put in the hours, grapple with a task and work on a problem – that your potential for flow – and happiness – is realized.
4 practical ways to master your creativity
- Adopt a ‘growth mindset’
If your mindset is ‘fixed’ you think you can’t learn new things and are more likely to give up. When your mindset is open you seek to learn from failure and challenge yourself – and that’s vital to persevering and succeeding.
- Put in the effort and practice
If you want your writing to improve you’ll need to remember Ericsson’s 10,000 hours rule. Don’t wait to get hit by the muse – that rarely happens – put in the time and your confidence and abilities will grow.
- Make your practice ‘deliberate’
There’s a big difference between practice for its own sake and practice that’s going some place. Make sure that when you practice you learn from other people and be guided by their experience and feedback.
- Be humble
If you feel you’ve mastered your chosen creative discipline then that’s a sure fire indicator that you haven’t. Go back to 1 and start learning again.