I feel the most fulfilled when I am creating something. It doesn’t have to be anything profound or unprecedented. It could be as simple as learning a new tune on the banjo, planting seeds in my garden, building a birdhouse with my daughter, or writing a blog post. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is helping me realize why I feel this way when engaged in such activities.
When we are faced with challenges and tasks to which we adequately possess the skills to accomplish, we achieve what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. If we do not possess the skills to meet a challenging demand, we become stressed and overwhelmed. When the task is too easy and we posses an abundance of skills to accomplish this task, we feel bored and unfulfilled.
Csikszentmihalyi writes, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen (3).”
I think this is a fascinating observation. I used to think that I loved woodworking just because I love woodworking, but as I’ve been reading Csikszentmihalyi I’ve realized that my affection toward this particular hobby is likely because it creatively engages my mind and provides a constant source of feedback:
Is the wood too rough? Yes, then I’ll keep sanding.
Does this piece fit? No, let me trim it some more.
When I build something out of wood I am stretching my mind to envision what I want to create and then am working with my hands to bring about it’s physical form. For me, woodworking is a particular task that I possess enough skill in that I can challenge myself to create something then feel fulfilled throughout the process of creating it and seeing it manifested. Painting on the other hand, is a task in which I am not very skilled in so when I try to paint I only feel stressed and overwhelmed because my skill level is not adept enough to meet the demands of my mind. Different people will be drawn to different forms of hobby, recreation, and craft because of this tension between challenge and competence.
I fear, however, that the temptation today is to neglect recreation (re-creation) and merely turn to passive consumption of someone else’s creative work. We may feel unsatisfied with work and long for time off, but then end up at home in front of the television which seems like it should be fulfilling and rewarding but often is not. And so the negative feedback loop continues…back to the hum drum of work the next morning, the anticipation of leaving work in order to relax, the passive consumption of entertainment, going to bed feeling unsatisfied with one’s live and accomplishments, rinse and repeat. I’m not suggesting that everyone lives this way, only that it is the temptation for all of us if we aren’t intentional and learn to control our conscious experience of the world.
Csikszentmihalyi comments on all of this so well that I’m going to quote some lengthier sections of his writing on this topic because he says what I want to say better than I can. I’ve added my own emphasis in bold below.
In a section called “The Waste of Free Time” he writes:
Although, as we have seen, people generally long to leave their places of work and get home, ready to put their hard-earned free time to good use, all too often they have no idea what to do there. Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy then free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, personal interests, and especially inner discipline help to make leisure what it is supposed to be—a change for re-creation. But on the whole people miss the opportunity to enjoy leisure even more thoroughly than they do with working time.
The tremendous leisure industry that has arisen in the last few generations has been designed to help fill free time with enjoyable experiences. Nevertheless, instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire the paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.
This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality. Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons—such as the wish to flaunt one’s status—are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened then we were before.
Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing. Most jobs and many leisure activities—especially those involving the passive consumption of mass media—are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow them to, they can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving only feeble husks. But like everything else, work and leisure can be appropriated for our needs. People who learn to enjoy their work, who do not waste their free time, end up feeling that their lives as a whole have become much more worthwhile. (162-163)
Wow. That’ll preach Csikszentmihalyi.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Farmington Hills, MI