The Science of Flow: Unlocking Better Creativity and Happiness (Part 2)

The Science of Flow: Unlocking Better Creativity and Happiness (Part 2)

The world needs a lot more creativity, both in coming up with ideas, as well as ensuring their execution. In Part 1 of this series, I outlined a deep dive into the science of the state of Flow derived from Steven Kotler’s book 'The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance'. Part 2 is a more practical examination of how to introduce flow into our everyday lives.

While there is a solid argument that flow is the secret sauce behind the rapid development of adventure sports, it also plays a huge part in normal mental activities. Writers, poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians composers and film-makers all leverage peak performance in pursuit of their craft.

It also plays an important part in creative industries like marketing, advertising, and within startups. New campaign ideas are born from flow states. Developers writing code have heavy zone triggers. Flow is also thought to be secret ingredient in a lot of online ideas that stick - things like website stickiness, customer attraction, mitigation of price sensitivity, and influence on buying behaviors.

Below I have outlined some starters gleaned from a wide variety of sources that touch on techniques to maximize the potential for flow. A lot of these may sound new age or esoteric in nature; what’s required is an open mindset and the desire to experiment with the different applications to stick with what works for you.

A Flow Refresher

Before we jump into techniques, let’s do a quick refresher on flow - happiness defined by peak creative performance.  

Flow is best expressed as a four part ‘flow cycle’. Note, interestingly a lot of this theory echoes the model ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young.

Step 1: Struggle

Our first step is a loading phase. We need to overload the brain with information (novel stimuli) from our baseline state.

In the business world, this will kick start with the creative problem we need to solve, or an issue that has emerged. We begin to soak up inputs like research, analysis, analytics, briefings - in other words, fact finding.

As we focus on the task, we create tension, which often leads to frustration. The problem seems unsolvable, our efforts feel like they are unsustainable, and the destination cloudy - the little voice in your head might be telling you that the solution is impossible.

Our brains begin to engage in pattern recognition. We repeat our analysis over and over again until they become chunks. This process may feel quite awkward and uncomfortable. We must move through this struggle phase and have faith in our ability to deliver a creative outcome.

Step 2: Release

This step involves taking your mind off the problem, and severing prior thought and emotional patterns. Triggering flow can only come from relaxation, so maintaining high stress levels will not allow you to unleash creative outcomes. We need to let things percolate, and let the body and mind relax.

Step 3: Flow Action

Struggle gives way to release, which triggers our flow action state. We may start to experience some of the flow elements, spiking our high speed problem solving, deep insight and perfect decision making capabilities.

Step 4: Recovery

A final often overlooked stage. Flow requires a lot of exertion on the body, draining energy and playing with powerful neurochemistry. We need to rest, allowing the brain to consolidate new patterns and memories, and a ‘level up’ to a new and improved baseline state.

Increasing Flow

We want more flow in our lives. The following techniques provide some experiments to try and maximize our abilities to move into flow, divided into Personal, Environmental, and Social.

The Science of Flow: Unlocking Better Creativity and Happiness (Part 1)

The Science of Flow: Unlocking Better Creativity and Happiness (Part 1)

The following essay started out as my own attempt to try and codify strategies to improve my creative output. Advertising & Marketing are industries that feed on new ideas, so any strategies to improve ideation are always important. 

It has ended up being a much larger two part deep dive into the theory of flow, one of the more interesting recent scientific theories on where creativity comes from.

Part 1 will outline some of the problems we are currently facing, and introduce a crash course into the theory and science behind flow. Part 2 will be a much more grounded and practical framework for introducing more flow into our lives, hopefully maximising creativity as well as happiness in the process.

The Theory of Flow

There is no doubt that humans have made extraordinary leaps in the time we have been on our planet. Right now, we live in an era defined by huge advances in medicine, quality of life, longevity, resource acquisition and abundance. We also have some ongoing and upcoming thorny problems that we still need to address.

The purpose of this essay is to explore two elements of this equation;

  1. The need to drive greater happiness
  2. The desire to spark deeper creativity.

Present Problems

Right now, we have some deep systemic cultural problems manifesting in our workforce. Shifting values from Generation X to Z and increased technological disruption have not meshed well - instead they are leading to greater levels of uncertainty and unhappiness.

A 2013 Gallup report ‘State of the Global Workplace’ reveals that the bulk of the workers worldwide (63% or 900 million people) are “not engaged” at work, with a further 24% stating they are “actively disengaged”. This means over 3/4 of workers worldwide are unhappy, unproductive, lack motivation, and are unlikely to invest in discretionary effort in organizational goals and outcomes. This has a massive impact on creativity and output.

It gets worse when you take into account Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital Trends report. Some of their findings include:

  • 86% of business and HR leaders believe they do not have an adequate leadership pipeline
  • 79% believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem
  • 77% do not feel they have the right HR skills to address the issue
  • 75% are struggling to attract and recruit the top people they need
  • Only 17% feel they have a compelling and engaging employment brand

This is creating a sense of operational paralysis. Traditional organizations are struggling to attract workers, and when they do, they can’t seem to create happy work environments to support them. Out of all of the skills valued most by business leaders, creativity continues to be highlighted as the number one attribute we need to foster in employees and leaders to meet new and emerging challenges.