Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Happiness and The Flow

Okay, so the concept of the creative flow has been a favourite with me for a while. I even dedicated a section in my first writing book, The Five Day Writer's Retreat, to looking at what it is and how writers can utilise it for better productivity and enjoyment. Though, I haven't thought about it for a while now.

Today I was handed a print out of information on tomorrow's 'Happiness Day' (yes, tomorrow is UN Day of Happiness, in case you hadn't realised). The handout was all about how frequently entering into the flow is one of the greatest secrets to happiness. (For more information and a copy of the ebook, see the blog Think and Be Happy.)

How cool is that?

It is based on the work of a leading psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (say that five times fast). As he states:

"It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, warm sunshine, or the contentment of a serene relationship, but this kind of happiness is dependent on favourable external circumstances. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness."

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, flow is that sensation of the world and all physical sensations slipping away, where you are perfectly focused on what you are doing, and don't notice time passing, there is a sense of accomplishment and excitement about what you are doing.

I first noted this sensation when I read. The moments where the words disappear from the page and all you see is images in your mind, feel you are part of the world and inside of the story. You can read all day and forget that you need to eat and sleep.

I have also experienced this (occasionally) when I'm exercising. You get into the motion and nothing seems to matter, you feel like you keep going forever and each stroke is a joy. It doesn't always happen, but it's fantastic when it does.

And then I noticed that I had it when I wrote. The computer and keys would disappear, and I would just be watching the movie of my characters, rushing to keep up with them, feeling their emotions, rising and falling with them.

Entering into the flow with writing is the main reason I want to be a writer. It also happens to make me a better writer. My writing is smoother and more emotive, my characters more realistic and natural. Also, my writing speed can easily double.

And now I have scientific support that it makes me a happier person afterwards!

According to Professor Csikszentmihaly it is possible to create flow in any challenging task. Passive pasttimes such as taking a bath or watching TV can be relaxing, but don't create it. (Some might say that reading is also passive, but the transformation of words into images appears to give it the challenge necessary.)

So what advice does Professor Csikszentmihaly give for creating flow in anything?

1. Choose a task that's challenging: not too easy, but not too hard.
Reading Spot Can Run probably won't do it for you, but then again, so mightn't Stephen Hawkins' A Brief History of Time.

2. Similarly, set clear and realistic goals.
Part of the happiness at the end of a flow state comes from a sense of accomplishment. It is much easier to get that sense if you know what you wanted to accomplish. Australian author Kate Forsyth recommended setting a writing goal for the session which would stretch you, such as 5,000 words.

3. Identify your motivation.
The professor argues that you need to be doing a task that you are naturally drawn to in order to enter into the state. Therefore, if you confirm before hand why you want to be doing this, it can help.

4. Be proactive.
Procrastination is the evil twin of working in the flow. It is allowing all external distractions to break you away from your task. If you regularly give into procrastination, you weaken your ability to focus. Also, you add stress and pressure to each new session which can destroy the sense of flow.

5. Don't focus on your performance or try to force yourself into flow.
The goals are to give you a sense of accomplishment at the end, but to try and measure how you are going while you are working breaks your concentration, the foundation of a flow state. So ignore the goals while you are working.

6. Create the right environment.
This will vary for individuals, for example some people need music to tune out while they work, while for others it's an added distraction. So you need to experiment with different factors to find out what works for you.

7. Give yourself enough time.
It takes at least 15 minutes to enter into a flow state, and once there you want to make the most of it. So when practicing to utilise the flow, give yourself much longer sessions than you normally might.

8. Minimise interruptions and distractions.
Common trouble makers: open door, phone, internet, email alerts. Get rid of them all as much as you can.

9. Monitor your emotional state.
Sometimes it is almost impossible to enter into a state of flow because you are all worked up, and no amount of putting away distractions and setting goals will give you the peace necessary. Taking time to work through some of these issues, or practice relaxation methods to quieten your thoughts can turn a potentially bad session into a great one.

10. Regularly engage in tasks that encourage a flow state.
Practice makes purpose. The more you do it, the easier it will become.

Now, time to go and enjoy the benefits of writing!

Update on my writing:
I've now been up in Brisbane for just over two months. Wow, feels like a lot longer.
I'm settling into a good routine writing in the mornings, going to the gym, then working from 2.15-11.15 pm. I'm not getting as much writing done as I had optimistically thought, but at least I'm getting something done, and trying to do it consistently.

Since I last wrote, I've finished off my work on A Little Bit Of Leaven, and entered that into the Caleb unpublished manuscripts competition. Looking forward to getting some feedback on that.

I then spent a few weeks working on a structural edit and the layout for my brother's second book. Got some proof copies sent out which he has done another edit on (he prefers to work on paper, so likes to have the books printed up and proofs sent out so that he can see the mistakes better. It's actually a pretty good system, if slightly expensive (or time consuming for me!).) I've now got to do a few more changes and then redo the proofs.

I finished the second draft of After The Winter (my historical romance) yesterday, and now have it with a few trusted beta readers. I've lost my ability to judge if it 'works' or not. Once I get their feedback I'll do another edit and then get it proof-read. Then it will be ready to go, yah!

Today I went back and continued editing The Five Day Writer's Bootcamp. It is filled with great information, but at the moment it's a bit all over the place. I'm going to go through it and then send it to one of my editors for a structural edit. Then I'll work on polishing it.

I've also been reading a lot. In the last two weeks I've finished off 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat' (really interesting book on a neurologist's case studies of different disorders), then Ian McEwan's 'Enduring Love' (love McEwan's writing style, it's so beautiful). Last night I finished off 'The Millionaire Next Door', which reinforced to me the need for self-discipline. And now I'm reading 'A New Guide To Better Writing' published in 1947, always good to keep reading about writing. 

And tomorrow I'm going to focus on being happy!

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