In the Flow: Looking at Csikszentmihalyi's Great Idea

"I believe that it's the emotions associated with labor that sustain craftspeople. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "cheek-sent-me-high") offers a number of insights about the nature of satisfying action, all of which pertain to handwork. He describes a type of pleasurable action that he calls "flow". Activities that induce flow have clear goals, they are challenging but not impossible to complete, they provide immediate feedback, and they are characterized by a deep state of concentration that is set apart from everyday experience. Csikszentmihalyi says, "The combination of all these elements causes a deep sense of enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it." 9 In other words, the secret of contentment is absorbed work." Bruce Metcalf

I first ran across Csikszentmihalyi's idea of Flow a few years ago in the above Bruce Metcalf essay. On first read, their words hit me like a ton of bricks. This is the best explanation about why I am a potter. I am a potter because it feels good to make pots. I know it sounds cliche but it is the truth. From the age of 16 I have been completely absorbed in ceramics because of the way the sensation of working makes me feel.

It might seem oversimplified to say that my whole life is dedicated to feeling good. Rationally, can I say that my 9 years of formal education were really just a pursuit of pleasure? I'm not a hedonist wondering around the world trying to fill my life with only the best feelings of my experience. In fact, my practice of Buddhism for the last decade leaves me leaning towards moderation and acceptance of all experiences that come across my path. Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-pleasure, but I do think pleasure, like all feelings, is a temporary experience.

Some pleasurable activities are more escape-centered, which makes them by default temporary. Reality's constant gravity pulls us back to the moment even as we try to run from its grasp. Getting high is a an example of a pleasure state that feels good but is ultimately unsuccessful in dulling the world around us. However, activities that induce Csikszentmihalyi's Flow can be sustained because they create a deeper engagement with reality. There is still a feeling of "losing oneself" but in Flow inducing work you are hyper-focused as opposed to defocused.

Creative activity is perfect for creating a hyper-focused state. In Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk he explains the science behind losing oneself. "Our brain can handle 110 bits of info per second. Listening to someone is 60 bits per second. A completely engaging creative experience overfills the brains attention span. This overload pushes out normal forms of awareness like a sense of self or sense of our surroundings." This makes so much sense to me as I watch artists interact with others in a community studio. At the Pottery Workshop Shanghai our ten or so resident artists float in and out of the studio during the day. People talk with each other but inevitably during some point in the day the studio is totally quiet. You can only hear the sound of the potters wheel turning. Ten minds are all engaged on various tasks. I'm not sure but I would guess at these times all ten are engaged in Flow.

There are many gems in Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk, so I thought I would post it so you can get a first hand listen. I also am listing his ten factors for experiencing Flow. I recommend you check out the Wiki page that goes in much more detail about the psychology of Flow.

"Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following ten factors as accompanying an experience of flow:

Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.

Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it). 

A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. Action with awareness fades into action alone. 

Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered. 

Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed). 

Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult). 

A sense of personal control over the situation or activity. 

The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action. 

A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it) 

Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging. Action with awareness fades into action alone."


  1. Ten very insightful points. I see myself in them as I spend time working. I actually have to set an alarm to stop work, otherwise I wouldn't know to go home!

    1. Ha ha. An alarm is a great idea. I find myself late to dinner almost every night because I get absorbed in the work. My girlfriend is very patient with me thankfully.

  2. Hi Ben, I discoverd you on the Ceramics Arts Daily website today. I love your work and blog, but in particular this post really hit me like a ton of bricks, ha, ha. Just recently at markets, I have been asked why I love pottery so much and just the last week I decided after much thought that as a creative person, it is the action of doing/creating something with my hands and clay just happens to be the medium I love. It's the way it makes me feel whilst doing it. To lose myself and get in the zone. What you explained above, says it all. Someone else said to me when visting my home that I don't have alot of my own pieces on display around my home. I explained that once I had made a pot, the connection with that piece ends and I feel excited and look forward to the next challenge or project that lies ahead. I get pleasure from the experience of having made it and the things I learned from the experience. It's a way for me to realise all the creative ideas in my head. I just do what my brain tells me lol. Thanks for your insight.