Research on Creative Flow

For those of you who have participated in my 28-Day Flow Challenges, I’m so excited there is extensive scientific research linking doing daily activities that bring us joy to good emotional and mental well-being.

Following is an overview of research proving the benefits of doing a daily activity that brings us joy and sometimes gets us into a state of flow.

This is one of the best videos (only 4 minutes!) I have seen about flow:

Video about brain activity during a flow state and how flow positively affects mental well-being

Source: BrainFacts.org

The initial research on flow states was done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, who coined the term “flow” as a result of his extensive interviews with individuals all over the world. Flow is the word most often used to describe the shift in consciousness they felt when they were fully engaged in doing an activity they loved to do.

Creativity and Mental Wellness Research

Creative Hobbyists Fared Better During Pandemic

I love the following study because it is consistent with what I have noticed in my own life, and feedback from those who have been participating in my 28-Day Flow Challenges. These researchers looked at “whether the tendency to engage in everyday creative pursuits (e.g., making your own greeting cards) would act as a prophylactic against poor well-being.”

Results showed those who engaged in creative pursuits during the early stages of the pandemic “reported higher levels of self-esteem, optimism, and positive affect. In contrast, those who pursued fewer creative outlets had higher levels of depression and anxiety, were higher in boredom proneness, and reported experiencing more negative affect.”

Which is basically what you have all been saying too (in your own words)! Yet another reason to keep flowing, my friends! 😊

Creativity, Boredom Proneness and Well-Being in the Pandemic – PubMed (nih.gov)

Creative Habits Boost Moods

A daily creativity habit is linked to a “high positive affect.” Say what?! In everyday English, that means high energy, full concentration, and pleasurable engagement. The below study proved what many of us have learned firsthand while doing 28-Day Flow Challenges together–creative activities boost our moods.

Conner, T.S., DeYoung, C.G., & Silvia, P.J. (2018) Everyday creative activity as a path to flourishing, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13:2, 181-189, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1257049

In this study, art-makers provided a saliva test before and after spending 45-minutes making art. (That’s a flow activity none of you have tried yet–daily spitting! 🤣). Art-makers also provided written feedback about their experiences.

This study showed very cool results. Art making resulted in statistically significant lowering of cortisol levels (by testing the saliva). Participants also shared they found their art-making sessions to be “relaxing, enjoyable, helpful for learning about new aspects of self, freeing from constraints, an evolving process of initial struggle to later resolution, and about flow/losing themselves in the work.”

That pretty much sums up what you all have been saying about our flow challenges too (although maybe not exactly in those words). The art-makers also reflected they wanted to make more art in the future, which speaks to the positive and addictive nature of flow and creative habits. Here’s the source:

Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making (tandfonline.com)

Making Meaning with Creativity May Protect Against Negative Effects of Traumatic Events

The ability to make meaning out of our difficult experiences can be a life-changing skill, leading to greater resilience and a more positive outlook. This study aimed to “connect mini, little, Pro, and Big creative behaviors with our attempts to make meaning of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and…to suggest how engaging in creative expression can be used to guard against the adverse consequences of this outbreak.” In addition, the authors “propose how engaging in creativity can serve to buffer against the negative effects of living through the pandemic.”

Two of my favorites–Abraham Maslow, creator of the hierarchy of needs model, and Vikor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search For Meaning are mentioned in this one, as well as all the different ways creativity can help us to better grapple with stress.

Meaning-Making Through Creativity During COVID-19 – PMC (nih.gov)

Prescribing “Activities” Improved Mental Well-being in UK

This is a fascinating exploration of more than 17 scientific studies looking at initiatives in the UK to improve mental health while also cutting costs. Each included social prescriptive programs. Basically, physicians connected at-risk patients with local community programs offering art or exercise programs, or that were in need of volunteers. The idea was that prescribing pleasurable activities and connecting patients with specific community services to do so could mitigate potential risk to mental wellness.

The programs included: the following: “Arts on Prescription”; “Books on Prescription” / “Bibliotherapy”; “Education on Prescription”; and “Exercise Referral/Exercise on Prescription”; lesser known models include “Green Gyms” and other “Healthy Living Initiatives”; Sign Posting’/“Information Referral”; “Supported Referral”; and “Time Banks”.

Overall findings were positive. Positive outcomes included increases in self-esteem and confidence, mood, reduction in symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, improvement in physical health, reduction in return visits to physicians, and an increase in sociability, communication skills, learning new skills, optimism and feeling hopeful and motivated.

Full article: Non-clinical community interventions: a systematised review of social prescribing schemes

Two Types of Creativity?

So, there’s creativity and then there’s CREATIVITY. One’s not better than the other, just different. As in, they feel different in the brain. This study talks about the difference between when our creative activity feels like it’s happening through us–like channeling, free-flow writing, or any form of improvisation–versus when it feels like we are working harder at our creative activity.

One can certainly lead to the other, and the more we practice, the more we build skills that enable us to slip into flow. In other words, all the activities you’ve been doing during our 28-Day Flow Challenges are ALL GOOD! (And scientifically beneficial for our mental and physical health based on all of the studies on this page.)

This study talks a little about both ways of doing creative work and shows what happened in the brain jazz while musicians improvised, the form of creativity where creative decisions feel almost like they are coming from a source beyond the individual. They looked at jazz musicians and discovered that improvisation was “consistently characterized by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex: extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions with focal activation of the medial prefrontal (frontal polar) cortex.”

I’m no neurologist, but according to this research, when our creative activities feel as if they are flowing through us and are “internally motivated” (a key marker of flow), different areas of the brain are being activated and inhibited than when we are not in this flowing creative state.

Flow’s impact on the brain is continually being studied and new findings uncovered all the time. What I like about this study is that it focuses on spontaneous creativity, which we talk about a lot in our 28-Day Flow Challenges.

Limb, C. A.. & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation

Hobbies Improve Mental Health at Middle Age, Gender Differences

This study fascinated me. First of all, it’s a really good one because it’s longitudinal (studies adults over a long period of time) and involved lots of people (16,642 middle-aged adults, age 50-59 at baseline), from a population-based, six-year panel survey.

In a nutshell, having hobbies improved mental health for women aged 50-59 whether or not the hobbies were done alone or with others. Men also saw improvements from hobbies. For men, however, it was more important to do their activities with others. For women, social interaction was more important for physical, sports-related hobbies, where creative hobbies done alone or with others offered benefits.

It was also interesting that socializing alone (including caring for children, elderly family members or socializing in general) did not show up as offering significant mental health benefits for either gender in this age bracket.

The fact that this study was conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare suggests that Japan may be ahead of the game when it comes to prioritizing the connection between lifestyle and mental health.

Takeda, F., Noguchi, H., Monma, T., & Tamiya, N. (2015). How Possibly Do Leisure and Social Activities Impact Mental Health of Middle-Aged Adults in Japan?: An Evidence from a National Longitudinal Survey. PloS one10(10), e0139777.

Hobbies Improve Overall Health in Elderly

Ever wonder if creative hobbies will keep us healthier as we age? The quick answer? Yes! The below study is a longitudinal one and looked at more than 600 elderly adults living independently and used ADLs (activities of daily living like walking, dressing, feeding themselves, bathing, etc.) as an assessment of overall health as related to their involvement in hobbies. Hobbies made a significant positive difference in overall well-being, physical health and abilities, and independence.

“Elderly people without hobbies had significantly lower scores on each item of ADLs than did people with hobbies. Also, elderly people without hobbies exhibited significantly higher scores for depression, significantly lower scores for frequency of laughter, and significantly lower scores for subjective QOL (quality of life).”

COMMUNITY‐DWELLING ELDERLY JAPANESE PEOPLE WITH HOBBIES ARE HEALTHIER THAN THOSE LACKING HOBBIES – Hirosaki – 2009 – Journal of the American Geriatrics Society – Wiley Online Library

Flow Improved Mental Wellness More than Mindfulness (but mindfulness is good too!)

This is an incredibly compelling study in favor of finding and sticking with activities that get us into creative flow! This one specifically looks at some of the longer-term lockdowns experienced in Wuhan and other major cities during the start of the pandemic. Participants completed an online survey assessing their experiences with flow, mindfulness, and well-being. No surprise: longer quarantine was associated with poorer well-being.

What helped? Flow and mindfulness. “However, flow—but not mindfulness—moderated the link between quarantine length and well-being, such that people who experienced high levels of flow showed little or no association between quarantine length and poorer well-being.” (Go FLOW! 😊)

Flow in the time of COVID-19: Findings from China | PLOS ONE

COVID Raised Awareness of Mental Health Issues

For those of us who were already stressed out about things in our lives that were beyond our control, the pandemic was like icing on the cake. This report cites that “during the pandemic, nearly half of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.” In addition, self-reported insomnia increased by 20%.

The good news is, there is now a worldwide call to action to do more to improve our mental health, including de-stigmatizing mental health symptoms and normalizing seeking support. This report will hopefully play a role in activating change.

Self-advocacy was suggested as being extremely important. It’s also nice to know that, in addition to getting support from healthcare professionals, there are many simple steps like starting new creative hobbies that people can take to improve their own well-being.

The pandemic has made mental wellness a public health must | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

Hobbies Increase During pandemic

This survey by Lending Tree had some interesting findings about COVID and hobbies. Here’s a quick summary:

  • 6 in 10 Americans tried a new hobby during the pandemic
  • Top hobbies included reading (61%), baking or cooking (36%), gardening (30%), meditation (29%) and writing (26%).
  • 8 in 10 said they’ll continue with their hobby even after the pandemic is over. 

59% of Americans Took on a New Hobby During Pandemic

Mental Health Recommendations from Medical Perspective (USA)

This is an interesting article with recommendations specific to the pandemic as to how individuals can take care of their mental health. It reflects the United State’s medical industry’s perspective and best known practices for this time. Creative hobbies are recommended under the general heading “stay busy.”

COVID-19 and your mental health – Mayo Clinic

Learning from History: The Depression and Hobbies

This article explores the increase in hobbies seen during the Great Depression, which gave individuals a valuable sense of purpose and control over the direction of their lives.

A Job You Can’t Lose: Work and Hobbies in the Great Depression

Experts Claim We are ALL Creative! 😊

If you want to geek out on psychological theories of creativity (I love this stuff!), here’s a good place to start.

The authors of this one call creativity “a decision that anyone can make.” (Love that! Yes, we are ALL creative!) They also conclude that reasons more people don’t engage in creative activities are because the costs are too high, and: “society can play a role in the development of creativity by increasing the rewards and decreasing the costs.”

I’ve got to be honest, after facilitating more than 20 of these flow challenges for almost three years now and seeing all the creative and affordable ways people come up with to work creativity into their lives, I believe the general lack of awareness of health benefits of creative activities is an important factor when it comes to overcoming resistance to doing creative activities.

Historically, there was similar resistance to making time for physical exercise and meditation before widely publicized scientific data and communication campaigns about proven health benefits shifted (and continues to shift) that resistance. I also have noticed that our own inner beliefs and self-judgements can be blocks to creativity and prioritizing doing creative activities. I talk a lot more about the personal side of what gets in our way of creative flow in my new book, as well as prompts and tools to help.

Sternberg, R. (2006). The Nature of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), pp.87-98.

Yes, We Are ALL Creative

This article explores how science is constantly evolving and humans are constantly reinventing themselves, expanding and growing. Not only does this article reinforce the idea that we are ALL creative based on a huge body of research, it also acts as a reminder of how young the fields of creativity and flow research really are, how much we don’t know, and the extent to which scientific theory on creativity and flow will likely continue to unfold in the generations to come.

Epstein, Robert, Skinner, University of California San Diego and Boston University, Creativity and the Problem of Spontaneous Behavior, American Psychological Society, Vol. 2, No. 6, November 1991, pages 362-370.

Call for More Research on Flow and Creativity

This white-paper by the Flow Research Collective details a survey completed by approximately 600 subscribers to an email list, in which individuals were divided into two groups. One group was asked to remember an event during which they were “not in flow, but not too cognitively stuck.” The other group was asked to recall a “creative experience when they were in flow.” Both groups filled out the same questions about their remembered experiences.

The most compelling finding was that clear goals, sense of control, and loss of self-consciousness were not correlated with self-reported memories of being in creative flow, although these have been identified as markers in studies looking at other forms of flow.

When it comes to the difference in a sense of “clear goals,” in my experience artists often have clear goals, however they often seem to be more internal rather than external (such as following how they are feeling intuitively led or getting to an inner “feeling of flow: being the goal itself rather than a marker than is more easily measured by an outside researcher looking in).

This survey suggests a need for further research to understand creative flow and forms of flow that more internally-driven and understood. This is a continual challenge in the field of flow research, which is why they majority of findings and conclusions have been done on activities that are easier to measure and understand from the outside looking. This is also why sports and video games are the activities on which the majority of flow research and findings has been based to date.

However, as we know from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s initial research into flow, humans can experience a flow state doing any activity at all, and a key marker of flow is the enjoyment experienced, not the outer results produced.

Flow and Creativity – White Paper.pdf

Nature and Stress Management Research

Ewert, A., & Chang, Y. (2018). Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 8(5), 49.

Mindfulness and Meditation Benefits

Extensive research has suggested that mindfulness, creative visualization, relaxation techniques, and meditation are all beneficial in helping to manage emotional stress, symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, pain management, as well as many other areas of health as well, such as lowering blood pressure and improving cancer treatment outcomes. This is an overview of some of these studies. Research is ongoing.

How Meditation May Change the Brain

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s Overview of Meditation

100 Benefits of Meditation – Parade Magazine

2014 JAMA Meta-analysis Shows Meditation Moderately Improves Anxiety, Depression and Pain

20 Studies Show Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Improves Health

4-Year Follow-Up Study Shows MBSR Has Positive Long-Term Effects

Reiki and Meditation Self-Care Program for Nurses Improved Problem Solving

Journaling Improves Emotional Wellness

This study showed that journaling can improve symptoms related to a traumatic event when the focus is not just processing emotions, but also making sense of those emotions or described as “cognitions” as well. This correlates to other research showing that making meaning of traumatic events improves long-term mental health outcomes.

Study on Journaling on Emotions and Cognitions versus Just Emotions

Following are some additional interesting studies regarding the benefits of journaling on resilience, anxiety, depression, performance, and overall quality of life.

Study in Nurses Showed Journaling Improved Ability to Manage Stress

Journaling Immediately After Stressful Event May Improve Long-term QOL

Online Journal Associated with Lower Anxiety and Depression Symptoms and More Resilience

Mental Health Benefits of Optimism

This is an overview of psychological research on the benefits of optimism, which is defined as assuming a positive outcome, a tendency to hope, to see the world as more positive than the negative, or the tendency to assume oneself as more apt to have positive outcomes than others.

Across the board, “there is evidence that optimistic people present a higher quality of life compared to those with low levels of optimism or even pessimists. Optimism may significantly influence mental and physical well-being by the promotion of a healthy lifestyle as well as by adaptive behaviours and cognitive responses, associated with greater flexibility, problem-solving capacity and a more efficient elaboration of negative information.”

Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being

Group Flow

Sync or sink? Interpersonal synchrony impacts self-esteem – PMC (nih.gov)

Exploring How We Work Best

Overview of research on the mental health benefit of taking breaks and work-life balance (apa.org)

Flow Benefits and Brain Function

There is a huge amount of research currently being done at the present time to try to learn more about exactly what happens in the brain, both in terms of areas activated and neurotransmitters and chemicals released, during flow states. Theories are constantly emerging based on new technologies such as brain scans.

Steven Kotler’s book The Rise of Superman popularized ideas about what might be happening in the brain during flow, including associated chemicals that are likely released during flow, such as dopamine, adrenaline, seratonin, etc. Evidence is compelling but far from conclusive based on what we currently know about brain function, but much more research is needed before confirmed.

More Resources

2014 Talk on The Secrets of Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

2004 Ted Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on benefits of flow

Theories About Dopamine and Flow, Discussion of What is Not Yet Proven

Studies on Prefrontal Cortex and Flow

Kotler article in Psychology Today re Brain Function During Flow and Creativity

Cortisol, Flow and Brain Function

Caffeine, Dopamine, Brain Function and Flow

Flow and Brain Function – Study on Tightrope Performer

Brain Imaging and Flow States to Identify Brain Function During Flow

Pupil Dilation as Predictor of Brain Activity in Gamblers – Flow Research

Brain Imaging During Sports and Flow

Meta-analysis of Flow and Altered Experience of Time

Noradrenaline’s Function in Processing During Flow States – Theory

Historical and Scientific Overview of Flow (ScienceDirect.com)

Review of Research on Flow States and Neuroscience ~ Behavioral Science

Neuroscience of the Flow State – April 2021

Activity in the Brain During Flow – 2014

(PDF) The Neuroscience of Flow (researchgate.net)

Frontiers | EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic Task (frontiersin.org)

Flow in Formula 1 Drivers Results (published research)

Yet another reason sports are good for you (published research)

Effects of confidence and anxiety on flow state in competition – PubMed (nih.gov)

Blogger Regarding Making Flow a Habit

Q&A About Flow and Brain Function – Kotler

Athletics and Chemicals Associated with Flow – Kotler Blog Article in Psychology Today

Flow Research Collective Podcast

Books on Flow Research

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York City, NY, Harper Perennial, 1990.

Books on Creativity Research

Barron, Frank, Creativity and Psychological Health, Origins of Personal Vitality and Creative Freedom, Princeton, NJ, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1963.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York City, NY, Harper Perennial, 1997.

Pink, D.H., A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, New York City, NY, Riverhead Books, 2006.

Simonton, D.K., Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, New York City, NY, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Scott, B.K. and Gregoire, C., Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, New York City, NY, TarcherPerigee, 2016.

Similar Posts