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更新时间:2019/2/28 18:26:22 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

The 'flow state': Where creative work thrives

Growing up in World War Two-ravaged Europe, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw the adults around him struggling to rebuild their lives – and often losing the will to try. He became preoccupied by a question that doesn’t trouble most kids: what makes life worth living?

米哈伊·奇克森特米哈伊(Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)在二战期间饱受战火蹂躏的欧洲长大,小时候他看到大人们都在努力地在战后重建自己的生活,但也有人失去了意志。于是,他开始专注于一个大多数其他孩子都不会去费力关心的问题:是什么让生命值得活下去?

Csikszentmihalyi moved from Hungary to the US to study psychology and the question that had obsessed him since childhood.


He wondered how wealth fit into the happiness equation, but the data suggested money wasn’t the answer; beyond a certain, basic threshold, increases in income hardly affected well-being. So, as he recounted in a TED talk enticingly subtitled The Secret to Happiness, he decided to explore “where in everyday life, in our normal experience, do we feel really happy?”.


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.


Indeed, there was something special happening. Csikszentmihalyi called this trance-like altered state of total absorption and effortless concentration ‘flow’.


That was 40 years ago. Since then Csikszentmihalyi, along with colleagues all over the world, has studied Himalayan climbers, Dominican monks, Navajo shepherds and thousands of others. To all of our good fortune, the researchers have found that ‘flow’ is not the exclusive realm of artists. In fact, we can experience flow whenever we are fully engaged with our work or hobbies or relationships, in mountains and monasteries alike.


A state of ‘flow’


A handful of conditions characterise the ‘flow state’.


“There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in his February 2004 TED talk. “You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”


Some people also call this period of hyperfocus ‘being in the zone’. Whether you call it ‘flow’ or ‘the zone’, it's not just a state of mind. It’s accompanied by physiological changes, too. In a 2010 Swedish study on classical pianists, the musicians who entered flow exhibited deepened breathing and slowed heart rates. Even the facial muscles that enable us to smile were activated.


The benefits of being in the zone stretch beyond the experience itself. Flow is associated with subjective well-being, satisfaction with life and general happiness. At work, it’s linked to productivity, motivation and company loyalty.


Some people may be naturally prone to flow – especially those who score high on personality tests for conscientiousness and openness to experience, and low on measures of neuroticism. But if you don’t experience flow every day, can you find a way to trigger it?


Getting into the zone


First, you must create the optimal conditions to get to your flow state.


“Avoid noisy environments and opportunity for interruptions,” advises Giovanni Moneta, an academic psychologist at London Metropolitan University and the author of Positive Psychology: A Critical Introduction.

“避开嘈杂和可能被打断的的环境,”伦敦都市大学(London Metropolitan University)的心理学家、《积极心理学导论》(Positive Psychology: A Critical Introduction)的作者乔凡尼·莫尼塔(Giovanni Moneta)建议道。

The activity makes a difference, too. “We need to engage in activities that are meaningful to us, that we find challenging and for which we feel that we have the skills required to come out as winners.”


We are more likely to access the flow state when engaged in tasks we’ve already practiced. Think of the expert figure skater on the rink or the confident singer at the microphone. The level of difficulty should also be just right – not so easy that you find yourself bored, but not so hard that you get stressed.


Of course, that isn’t something we can always control. American author Steven Kotler, who wrote a book about peak human performance, has admitted that, as much as we’ve learned about its biological correlates and mental benefits, “flow is still a happy accident when it happens. All we can do is make you more accident-prone.”

当然,这些并非我们总能随意控制的。美国作家科特勒(Steven Kotler)写过一本关于人类最佳表现的书。他承认,尽管我们已经了解了心流状态的生理反应和对心灵的裨益,“当发生时,心流仍然是一个快乐的意外。我们所能做的就是让你更容易发生这种意外。”

And, as Moneta warns, flow can be exhausting. The work involved in completing a big project involves a lot more than the ecstatic, if preternaturally productive, periods of flow. To get to the finish line of a task, it’s just as important to slog through the boring parts and push through the uncomfortably difficult ones.


Mindfulness matters


If you’re struggling to achieve flow – or just worn out by its intensity – you might aim for mindfulness instead. Think of mindfulness as a more accessible cousin of flow.


“The concepts are very similar,” says Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard who has written several books on mindfulness, creativity and belief. “The major difference is that mindfulness is a state of mind that is available to everybody virtually all the time. It’s not an unusual thing.”

“这两个概念非常相似,”写过几本关于正念、创造力和信仰专着的哈佛大学心理学教授兰格(Ellen Langer)说。“主要的区别在于,正念是一种几乎每时每刻每个人都能获得的心理状态。它不是什么不寻常的事情。”

Mindfulness confers many of the same benefits as flow, she says:


"When people are mindful, their blood pressure comes down. All the physiological signs indicate greater wellbeing. People see you as charismatic. You’re healthier, you’re happier, your relationships are better. The things you produce are better. We have symphony musicians performing mindfully or in their typical state (over-rehearsed and mindless). We play those pieces for people who don’t know anything about the study. Close to 90% prefer the mindfully played piece."


Almost any activity can be done mindfully, too – no yoga or meditation necessary.


“Simply say to yourself, ‘What are five new things about this person that I live with, this route that I’m taking home?’. Looking for new in the familiar leads us to be mindful,” says Langer. “If you’re talking to somebody and you think you know what they’re going to say, you barely listen. If you start off recognising that you don’t know, you have a very different attitude. Everything becomes more interesting, and if it’s interesting, it’s naturally engaging.”


Someone once asked me, upon learning that I was a writer, whether I “often experienced flow”. There’s a stereotype that writers and creatives can enter the zone at will – that we sit down at our laptops and the world melts away.


I’ve been practicing some of the elements of Moneta’s criteria to enter the zone for years. But I can remember accessing a state resembling flow only a few times; the vast majority of the hours I spend writing are closer to a grind than a trance. With any project, there are so many variables I can’t predict. Will my sources respond? Does the information I seek exist? Will someone send me a text starting ‘OMG’ to take me away from my focus? ­Plus, the idea of orchestrating a scenario in which the challenge exceeds my skills by 4% (as Kotler’s formula to enter flow recommends) strikes me as absurd.


Mindfulness, though, is more manageable. I can improve my focus by putting my phone in a drawer; when a task seems overwhelming, I can pause and take a breath. I can’t say it makes me feel transcendent, but I’ll take whatever calm I can get.