Flow: The Secret to Art Therapy’s Success

It is well-documented that frequently engaging in creative projects, particularly those which involve the visual arts, has a significant positive effect on mental health. Most people have witnessed this phenomenon either through their own experience or via the testimony of a friend. However, the evidence of the nourishing effects of creativity goes beyond simple anecdotes; particularly in the field of psychology, there is a concrete scientific basis for these results.

If you have found yourself wondering just why art therapy is so effective, or if you have been considering starting to utilize art therapy to improve your own mental well-being, then read on. Today we are going to dive into the mechanisms behind flow in areas such as art therapy. We will also seek to explore the rehabilitative impact of other endeavors as a whole, creative and otherwise, which can bring people into a flow state.

Flow States: An Introduction

If one were to summarize the main vehicle for art therapy’s therapeutic effects, most academics and researchers who study this phenomenon would explain that it operates through the involvement of flow states. Flow states seem not only to be responsible for the efficacy of art therapy, but also for the general satisfaction and happiness of those who have certain careers. Before we investigate why this is the case, let’s establish a strong working definition of “flow.”

If you have ever gotten fully lost in a task, you have likely experienced flow. When we experience flow during a task we tend to lose track of time, of our surroundings, and even of ourselves. Instead of operating in our normal state of self consciousness, multi-tasking, and distraction, we seem almost to don a set of blinders. This state of being, which is commonly referred to as being “in the zone,” is what constitutes flow.

Our modern understanding of flow comes largely from the work of 20th century psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who coined the term. In a piece on the “Transcendent Imperative” of modern life — the ways in which we can remain spiritual in a society which prioritizes scientific materialism — writer Andrew Cooper recounts how Csikszentmihaly got on the path of his research:

In 1963 as part of his research for his doctoral dissertation on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi spent hundreds of hours observing artists at work and interviewing them about the nature of their experience. He became intrigued by how they became totally immersed in their labors. In time he realized that it was the activity itself — the work of painting and not, as he had thought, the anticipation of its outcome, that so enthralled his subjects. The work was worth doing — though often not consciously—for the sake of simply doing it.

Here we see early reference to the engagement that comes with art therapy and other creative tasks.

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Flow and Job Satisfaction

Flow is very common in, and thus tends to be associated with, creative expression. We think of writers entering a sort of fugue state, typing or scribbling furiously as their body transforms from a person into a vessel for the “muse” to work through. Or we think of the artist or participant of art therapy, who loses track of themselves as they brush wildly and splatter paint in large, inspired strokes and splashes.

When Mihaly Csikszentmihaly first started to look into flow, this was the context he had in mind. Writer for the BBC’s Worklife series Alice Robb writes that, toward the beginning of his work, Csikszentmihaly took this approach:

Csikszentmihalyi thought that creatives – artists, painters, musicians – might have some insight. There must be some reason why they toiled away at projects unlikely to yield fame or fortune. Did something about their process bring them fulfilment? What made their sacrifice worthwhile? One composer told Csikszentmihalyi how, when his work was going well, he experienced a kind of ecstasy. He didn’t need to think, he lost track of time and the music would “just flow out”. Csikszentmihalyi heard athletes, poets, chess players describe the same phenomenon.

As you can see, the association between flow and creative endeavors, such as composition and art therapy, goes back to the inception of this line of research. However, the phenomenon of flow is not unique to these domains. In fact, there is no limit to the circumstances in which we can enter flow states. We will get into what those specific conditions are in a moment.

Flow is less about the specifics of a task, and more about its level of difficulty and engagement. The truth is that any task which is sufficiently challenging while still remaining achievable presents the opportunity for entering a flow state. This means that attorneys working hard on a difficult case, doctors having to think quickly on their feet in an urgent care, even carpenters engaged in a particularly tricky roof repair can find themselves in a flow state as they focus completely on the task at hand.

Familiarity and practice are key components of flow — while not expressly required, they do make achieving the state much more likely. This is easy to visualize and understand with the aid of some examples. Someone who never really sings who enters a talent show or steps onstage for karaoke is probably not going to experience any semblance of flow. They are going to be far too nervous, too focused on how they’re doing, how others are reacting, how they could be doing better, what others in their place might do, etc. This does not set one up to be in the zone.

By contrast, a professional musical theater actor who steps onstage during a performance and does a solo number very well may experience flow through the duration of their scene. This is made possible by the degree to which they have practiced their craft and rehearsed their part. Because they are confident in their abilities, know their part, and do not have to think much about the details or logistics of their activity, they are free to get lost in the process itself and thus end up playing in a flow state.

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Practice is so central because, even for tasks that are within one’s abilities, flow is not guaranteed if the activity is too easy. While you may have full confidence and control while alphabetizing your CD collection, you are not likely to enter a flow state, as that is not a task which required the building of a certain skill set through practice.

If you’re thinking that competition will give you the boost you need to access flow, think again. No matter your competitive intelligence, competition will inevitably lead to your thinking about the other people competing, which will disrupt your focus on the task at hand. At the end of the day, flow states tend to be a solitary experience.

The secret here lies in striking the right balance between difficulty and ability. The closer a task takes you to the limits of your capacity without surpassing them, the more likely you are to end up in a flow state. This is very likely the reason why people who have a job that is constantly changing and challenging them tend to have high levels of satisfaction. This type of experience is much more fulfilling than working a job that is “beneath you,” as in it does not push you anywhere near the boundaries of your skill level.

The opposite issue also does not lead to fulfillment — if a job goes too far in the other direction and has demands which completely exceed your capacity to deliver, the result will not be flow and high levels of satisfaction. Rather, you will simply experience frustration, fatigue, and burnout. As we are all well-aware, this is not a pleasant sensation.

For example, some students might find that when writing essays, they are able to slip into an enjoyable state of focus and performance, getting their paper done in no time at all. However, these students most likely already have an innate propensity for writing and thus do not get too stressed to flow. For students who regularly experience school anxiety, it is a different story. You must be sufficiently comfortable and confident in your abilities in order to enter the flow state.

At the end of the day, flow and peak satisfaction lie in the happy little valley between the two mountains of too easy and too hard.

Getting Flow in Your Life

Unfortunately, not all of us are lucky enough to work a job which regularly challenges us to the appropriate degree, allowing us to enjoy those regular flow states and high general satisfaction and fulfillment. If this applies to you, worry not. There are steps you can take to introduce flow into your own life and make it a regular part of your lived experience. We will go into activities you can engage in regularly and habits you can build to get you flowing in no time at all.

Strategy #1: Try Meditating Regularly

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If you’re having trouble getting into a flow state, there are some strategies you can employ to improve your odds of finding flow in your day. One of the most prominent and widely recognized habits you can build to improve your ability to flow is meditation. Mindfulness meditation has long been prized for its psychological benefits. In and of itself meditation seems to encourage feelings of joy well-being. This is due in large part to its relationship to focus.

Mindfulness meditation gets us in the habit of achieving a deep level of focus. Generally, mindfulness meditation tends to center on one’s breath. This can refer either to the sensations which accompany the breath around the nose, throat, or chest, or to the rhythm of the breath itself. Many people will also use the strategy of visualization while engaged in mindfulness meditation. A common object to visualize is the lotus flower — as you breathe in, you picture the petals folding in. As you breathe out, they unfold and your body relaxes.

As you may have guessed, this is a helpful practice when trying to enter flow states more frequently as it gets us used to focusing on one thing at a time. Multitasking is the nemesis of flow, as it doesn’t allow true concentration on any one task. You will notice that in any art therapy session, the participants are not also writing grocery lists or texting family members while they engage in creating their artwork. For the duration of the art therapy, they are focusing on their art and their art alone.

This is for good reason. You cannot be in multiple zones at once; you have to simply be in “the zone.” If you make mindfulness meditation a regular habit of yours, you will find your ability to achieve this singular focus improving rapidly. If you find yourself worrying that you don’t have enough time in your day to incorporate mindfulness meditation, you must remind yourself that this is most likely not the case. It takes as little as 5-10 minutes of meditation each day to make a difference in your life.

Strategy #2: Set Up a Good Work Space

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Your work space is your secret weapon when it comes to accessing a flow state. One of the most important steps you can take when setting up your space is making sure you have everything you need on hand. If you’re constantly having to get up to go find materials you need that you didn’t lay out ahead of time, you’ll never get the uninterrupted periods of focus you need to achieve flow.

For example, if you’re engaged in a woodworking project, make sure you’re using reliable clamps that won’t give out and leave you having to take the time to reset your position and readjust your focus.

Strategy #3: Remove All Distractions

As should be abundantly clear from our discussion so far, distractions are the biggest obstacle we face when trying to enter a flow state

Turn off the TV. If you have a local news anchor talking about pool closings while you’re trying to work on a project, your focus just isn’t going to stay where it needs to be. If you find yourself uncomfortable in the silence, you can listen to some music, but be careful. Music that is unfamiliar or too distracting can be just as disruptive to your focus. For best results, listen to a playlist or album that only has instrumentals.

Classical music is a common choice for this reason, so next time you sit down for an art therapy session, throw on your favorite composer.

By the same token, turn off your cell phone. If you have a friend who has a question they need to ask a family lawyer, but you’re trying to build a solid defense in an incredibly challenging case, you can’t have those notifications coming in and distracting you.

By now, you should know how to lay the groundwork for experiencing flow in your life. Whether you’re trying to get the rejuvenating and rehabilitative experience of flow in an art therapy class, or you simply want to perform better at work, flow is the secret to gaining new levels of joy, satisfaction, and insight.

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