Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for the quality that sets labor apart from work: flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know creative labor.
While work is seen as a necessary evil, being able to relax, to have nothing to do, seems to most people the royal road to happiness. The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.
Arete Institute pioneered innovative sabbatical weeks to reinvigorate stressed-out human beings, based on cutting-edge university research on what makes human beings fulfilled and happy – foremost the theories of psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman. Csikszentmihalyi’s and Seligman’s work was a major departure from psychology’s longstanding focus on pathology, and instead, they had explored what makes human beings maximally healthy – and happy. Their ‘happiness’ research had been systematically uncovering that human beings feel maximally fulfilled when they are deeply engaged in fairly challenging creative tasks. This finding runs rather contrary to conventional wisdom, which long presupposed that pure relaxation is the optimum state that human beings can strive for. (Among other things, this finding solves the paradox that many people report being more exhausted after returning from a ‘vacation’ than before they went. To cite just two dominant modes of vacationing, being driven around in a tour bus or lying on a beach, are only briefly interesting. In actuality, boredom and fatigue tend to set in quickly.) Professor Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHEEK-SENT-ME-HIGH) coined the term “flow” for the complete absorption felt by a person immersed in a challenging and fulfilling activity – such as creating a work of art, or performing jazz. Small wonder, then, that our culture is fascinated with film stars and rock musicians, and other kinds of artists who spend their days in creative play. In short, “flow” is a proven key to happiness. Additionally, social scientists over the years have compiled an overwhelming case that human beings universally wish for meaningful connection with – and creative interaction with – others. The groundbreaking 2001 book A General Theory of Love went even further, demonstrating that the human nervous system, from birth, is wired for human connection. Without connection, we cannot grow, and humans literally begin to die, cell by cell. This knowledge – the power of “flow” and the need for authentic connection – helped us at Arete Institute put together inspiring educational “sabbaticals” for our clients.
Against the ruin of the world there is only one defense: The creative act.
- Kenneth Rexroth