Update from the Field : State of “Flow”

March 22, 2019

We are in the midst of painting now and are frequently outdoors, in the neighborhoods.  The time spent painting is a special and specific.  It’s hard to describe exactly but there’s a feeling of deep satisfaction, of time standing still, and of happiness.  

I wonder what is it about this experience that creates this sense of happiness?  

There is the quiet of non-verbal communication as we adjust ladders, mix paints, look together at what has been done and search for the next steps.  Working together as one group motivated to a complete our goal. People who pass by are curious, amazed by the work we are doing.  There are conversations with people who live in the neighborhood of unexpected and simple exchanges.  Brief words of encouragement, questions, amusement, skepticism, and interest.  And daily life continues all around us, women selling French fries, buses transported loads, school children returning home in their uniforms.    

I think that the theory of flow put forward by Mily Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, relates to our mural painting experience.  Csikszentmihalyi identified a specific state of happiness he calls “flow,” while researching what makes life worth living. Listening to the TED talk where he identifies certain conditions that are present for people who experience a state of “flow” I noticed a lot of corollaries in our mural painting process.  These include:

  • • Being completely involved in what you are doing, so submerged in the process that you don’t have the brain power to think about whether you are hungry, or tired, or to worry about the problems at home;
  • • Experiencing a sense of ecstasy, referring to the ability to do something outside of everyday reality;
  • • You feel that it is possible to accomplish what you are doing;
  • • There is a sense of timelessness, that you are focused only on the present and time passes without you noticing;
  • • And You are intrinsically motivated pulled forward to engage, you feel part of something larger and the work becomes its own reward.

I thought it interesting as well that Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that people experience a state of flow when they engage their skills in something they love at a level higher than average, and feel challenged.  This very much applies to the mural painting process:  It is complicated but achievable, outside of ordinary experience, and something that myself and the girl love to be engaged in.  

Check out his TED Talk here : Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

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