Flow Theory, Creativity and Happiness

So, “time flies when you’re having fun”, right?

Fun can also be described as the flow state.

Creativity expert and Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi started studying happiness in the 1970s. This investigation led him to creativity studies, and this led him to present Flow Theory.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

When you are doing a task (such as writing a screenplay, making a movie, playing chess, playing music, doing a sport you love – and so on) and, your skills are equal to the current challenge, you can enter the Flow state. Also known as, being `in the zone’. Or the flow channel. See the diagram below for the flow channel. (Where: skills = challenge.)

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1st ed.). (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) explains it.

Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990)

Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990)

Here is a summary of the 9 characteristics of the flow state:

`(1) There are clear goals every step of the way…

(2) There is immediate feedback to one’s actions…

(3) There is a balance between challenges and skills…

(4) Action and awareness are merged…

(5) Distractions are excluded from consciousness…

(6) There is no worry of failure…

(7) Self-consciousness disappears…

(8) The sense of time becomes distorted[or: `time flies when you’re having fun’]


(9) The activity becomes autotelic…’ , [or: worth doing for its own sake, as it is so  enjoyable]

(Csikszentmihalyi 1996, Creativity)

[text inside square brackets are my inclusions – JTV]


And here is an animated book review of the book Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

And – here is a famous 2004 TED talk by Csikszentmihalyi:


And here is another video, about Csikszentmihalyi and Flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – FLOW


Another great video on the neurobiology of flow:

And here is a book, Writing In Flow (2001) by Susan K Perry PhD, in which she interviewed 75 best-selling writers  (novelists and poets) about flow.

Writing in Flow

From The Creativity Post

`Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a writer and social psychologist. After writing half a dozen nonfiction books, she decided to learn more about how the authors she most enjoys accomplish their feats of creativity. With famed flow researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi on her doctoral committee, she interviewed more than 75 best-selling and award-winning novelists and poets, including Jane Smiley, Billy Collins, Robert Olen Butler, Ethan Canin, and Ursula LeGuin. She later turned her dissertation into the Los Angeles Times-bestseller, Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity.’

Source:  The Creativity Post.

And here is an article by Dr Perry in Psychology Today (2014):

52 Terrific Tips for Writing Better
“You can pursue your passion more practically with this load of links and tools.”

And, still more articles with great writing tips, from Susan’s website.

Here’s a short Big Think video from Steven Kotler:

Your Brain Peforms Better When It Slows Down, with Steven Kotler

And, here is a recent presentation Csikszentmihalyi gave at the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Australia in 2014:

Living in flow – the secret of happiness with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the `Happiness & Its Causes’ conference (2014)


And here is Csikszentmihalyi in conversation with Richard Fidler, after that presentation.

In conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Happiness & Its Causes (2014)


Here is a Skype interview with Csikszentmihalyi.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, intrinsic motivation, and happiness

He notes that internet chess game players (of two-player chess games) enter flow, when their opponent is 7-10% better than them. (As an aside, genius filmmaker Stanley Kubrick also notes a similar point, in his interview with Jeremy Bernstein on 27th November 1966.)

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: Flow, Creativity & the Evolving Self – Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove

Csikszentmihalyi dispels the Romantic myth of the `struggling artist’.

TEDxUChicago 2011 – Mihaly Csikszentmihályi – `Rules of Engagement’

Csikszentmihalyi on the past 12 years of his research. Or: on Positive Psychology, or how to live a more interesting, engaging, and exciting life. Namely the things that make a good life: (1) pleasure, (2) engagement, and (3) meaning.

Csikszentmihalyi also has a great chapter on the origin of the domain of knowledge known as Positive Psychology in this book:

The Wiley Handbook of Genius (2014)

The chapter is:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). `The Systems Model of Creativity and Its Applications’. In D. K. Simonton (Ed.), The Wiley Handbook of Genius. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (pp. 533-45).

In the above TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi also talks about the chess-game study.

And there is this recent presentation:

What people say they love: Mihaly Csizkentmihályi at TEDxMilan (2013)

Here is a chart from the presentation:

What People Say They Love.png

What people say they love (Csikszentmihalyi TEDx Talk, 2013)

Since there is the `ten-year rule’ in creativity, the `flow’ state is one of the motivators that will keep you, er, motivated during the `ten years of struggle’, as you master your craft (say, for example, movie screenwriting)…!

Another great book is:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

I also presented a paper on Flow and Creativity, at this conference:

StoryAlity #122The IE2014 International Interactive Entertainment Conference

Flow Theory, Evolution & Creativity: or, ‘Fun & Games’ by JT Velikovsky (2014).

JT on Games and Evolution

Flow Theory, Evolution & Creativity: or, ‘Fun & Games’


In this paper videogames and transmedia are examined from the perspectives of both creation (game design) and audience reception (gameplay experience), in light of the theories of the DPFi (Domain, Person Field interaction) systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988, 1996, 2006, 2014); its herein contended theoretical equivalent, evolutionary epistemology (Popper 1963, DT Campbell 1974, Simonton 2010) and the inherent biocultural evolutionary creative algorithm of selection, variation and transmission-with-heredity; ‘flow’ theory in creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1975, 1990, 1996) as a determinant of ‘fun factor’ in games; ‘narrative transportation’ theory in fiction (Gerrig 1993, Green & Brock 2000, Van Laer et al 2014) as an additional (necessary but not sufficient) determinant of ‘fun-factor’ in ‘story’ videogames; and Boyd’s (2009) general theory of creativity in the arts as ‘cognitive play with pattern’ – ultimately arguing that game play of any kind may potentially enhance animal intelligence, and therefore that videogames as an art form may potentially enhance human intelligence.



So, flow theory has been developed into Narrative Transportation Theory.

This is when you become absorbed in a narrative (i.e., a story).

So – when you’re watching a play, reading a novel or experiencing a movie, if the narrative (the story) transports you, as an audience member / viewer / reader, you’re basically in the `flow’ state.

As a screenwriter – if your movie story (your screenplay) doesn’t transport the audience (or, at least, a large proportion of them) then – they probably don’t like your movie story.

On the other hand, the goal – as a screenwriter – is to keep the audience in narrative transportation (or, flow) state.

This is very similar to videogame design, where, the challenge of the current game level should be equal to the skills of the player. This is why game levels increase slightly in difficulty as the game progresses. (If the level is too easy, the player gets bored. If the level is too hard, the player gets anxious and frustrated.) So in making a videogame, you have to design each level so that the player stays in the flow channel, where their skills and the current challenge are matched.

This is the same as creating a story, or writing a novel – or a movie screenplay.

Right now, I’m not talking about the writer, (although – they are probably in flow a lot, if their writing skills are matched to the challenge of the scene they are writing)…

I mean for the audience / reader of the story.

The top 20 RoI (Return on Investment) movies manage to keep a large proportion of the audience engaged, entertained, or otherwise transported by the story.

See: StoryAlity #3B – Trailers of the Top 20 RoI Movies

And – conversely, if the audience finds any part of the story boring, or, predictable (can guess what is going to happen next in the story), then, obviously, the story isn’t transporting (absorbing) them, or putting them in the flow state.

(It is often said, that: “the one unforgivable sin of bad screenwriting is: being boring.” – i.e. because, `Drama is conflict‘, and so on.)

Likewise – if the audience are having trouble making sense of (or, `following’) the story (maybe, it is too complex, or has too many characters, or maybe the plot moves too fast) then, the audience will also not be narratively transported by the story, either.

Many of the bottom 20 RoI movies have problems of being either boring, or depressing, or too confusing or complex, e.g. It is often said that the movie Southland Tales has (too) many characters, and can be hard to follow

See: StoryAlity #3C – Trailers of the Bottom 20 RoI Movies

See also: StoryAlity #131 – Why Things (like, some Movies) Are Popular – and – The Anna Karenina principle

So, yeah. It’s a fine art keeping the audience (or reader) Narratively Transported.

Experiencing Narrative Worlds - Gerrig 1993

Experiencing Narrative Worlds (Gerrig 1993)


When I have time I will post on NTT, but, here are some articles and books on it, in the meantime.

Gerrig, R. J. (1993). Experiencing Narrative Worlds. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). `The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701–721.

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). `In the mind’s eye: Imagery and transportation into narrative worlds’ In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations (pp. 315–341). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Green, M. C., Brock, T. C., & Kaufman, G. (2004). `Understanding media enjoyment: The role of transportation in into narrative worlds’. Communication Theory, 14, 311-327.

Green, M. C., Chatham, C., & Sestir, M. A. (2012). `Emotion and transportation into fact and fiction.’ Scientific Study of Literature, 2(1), 37 – 59.

Owen, B., & Riggs, M. (2012). `Transportation, need for cognition, and affective disposition as factors in enjoyment of film narratives.’ Scientific Study of Literature, 2(1), 128-149.

Van Laer, T., De Ruyter, K., Visconti, L. M., & Wetzels, M. (2014). `The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumers’ Narrative Transportation.’ Journal Of Consumer Research, 40, 797-817. doi: 10.1086/673383

And – more on creativity and flow, at the posts below.

On Creativity:

  1. StoryAlity #6 – What is Creativity and How Does It Work?
  2. StoryAlity #7 – On “the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
  3. StoryAlity #8 – More on the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
  4. StoryAlity #9 – How To Be More Creative
  5. StoryAlity #9B – Creativity in Science (and – The Arts, and Film)
  6. StoryAlity #10 – About The Creative Personality
  7. StoryAlity #11 – Wallas and the Creative Process
  8. StoryAlity #12 – Combining Practice Theory – and the Systems Model of Creativity
  9. StoryAlity #13- Creativity and Solved Domain Problems
  10. StoryAlity #14 – On some Romantic myths of Creativity
  11. StoryAlity #14B – Creativity – the missing link between “The Two Cultures”
  12. StoryAlity #14C – Two Crucial American Psychological Association speeches: J P Guilford (1950) and D T Campbell (1975).

See also: StoryAlity #71On Consilience and Creativity in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Also, what Bergman says here sounds a lot like the flow state.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Boyd, B. (2009). On The Origin Of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: the Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1st ed.). New York: BasicBooks.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2014). Flow Theory, Evolution & Creativity: or, ‘Fun & Games‘. Paper presented at the Interactive Entertainment 2014 (IE2014), Newcastle, Australia.


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