Cultivate the Happiness Habit: Maximize Flow in Your Creative Career

Last week, I had the privilege of teaching at the Juilliard Lower Strings Seminar, taught by Astrid Schween, the fabulous cellist of the Juilliard Quartet. The  class provides strategies on how to succeed in the world of music.  My topic was how to cultivate the happiness habit and experience more flow in your creative career.

Happiness Breeds Success

I am fascinated by the connection between happiness and success as it relates to musicians and creative people. Not only does happiness provide personal motivation to pursue one’s craft, but it also enhances the ability to collaborate with other artists, to influence and inspire audiences and to generate positive relationships with creative professionals like presenters, venues, managers, agents and educators.

In fact, happiness is the subject of much research from the field of positive psychology, the study of human flourishing.

First, a definition.

By happiness, I mean experiencing joy, contentment or positive well-being doing and having optimism for the future. Notice that this is not the temporary rush you can get from eating ice cream or going on a shopping spree, or the bump that might happen from moving to California or getting a new job or meeting a new love interest.

Next, a quiz.

Do you believe that you will be happy when you achieve your lifetime career goal?  Or do you believe that you can generate success by being happy while  you work on achieving that lifetime career goal?

The answer is the second alternative (which most of the Juilliard students correctly identified!).

In fact, research shows that happiness and optimism generate the positive emotions that make it possible to cultivate the mindset and engage in behaviors that give rise to fulfillment and success. In other words, happiness breeds success.

The Happiness Habit

For starters, can we really become happier?

As the Juilliard students learned, the answer is yes!

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist specializing in how to create life-long happiness, has summarized her research in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.
The book shows that 40 percent of your potential to lead a happy life is within your control and depends on your behavior. So if you can change your behavior, you can become happier.

Lyubomirksy explains that you can change your behavior through” intentional activity”.  To do so and develop the happiness habit requires four steps:

  1. Make a decision to work on becoming happier;
  2. Learn new skills and strategies that will make you happier;
  3. Apply weekly or even daily effort; and
  4. Commit to the long-term goal to become happier.

Our Juilliard musicians commented that this process sounds like the path to becoming better musicians.  As such, they could relate to the fact that creating life-long happiness takes work.  It requires time and patience. It entails commitment. And the good news is that with practice–which they have been doing since childhood–happiness can become a habit.

Find Your Flow

One way to create greater happiness and adopt the happiness habit is to tap into Flow, your level of optimal performance. Flow is the brainchild of psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi as described his book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow is the total immersion in a complex activity of creation that you are intrinsically motivated to pursue where your skill level meets the challenge at hand and time goes by to the point that you do not even notice. Flow gives rise to feelings of happiness and confidence. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi elaborates on the connection between Flow and Happiness in his TED Talk entitled Flow: The Secret to Happiness.

I led the Juilliard students through a Flow-finding exercise. They then created a Flow Affirmation  to remind them of how great they felt at flow.


How to Access Flow

How would you like to access your Flow? It only takes a few minutes.

Close your eyes.

Take three deep breaths.

Now, recall an experience from any aspect of your life when you were doing something that you love, performing flawlessly and feeling joyful.

In this experience, you felt challenged yet confident of meeting that challenge. You were totally immersed in this activity and so absorbed in the moment that you didn’t even notice the passage of time. And you were doing this just because you loved it.

Take in a few more deep breaths as you immerse yourself in this experience.

Then, open your eyes.

How to you feel?

Probably pretty great!  Chances are you tapped into your level of optimal performance and Flow.

Now that you have captured your Flow experience, it helps to capture those feelings.
Come up with a few words that describe what you were like when you were in this wonderful state of optimal performance.  Put them in a sentence starting with the words, “I am” and create your Flow Affirmation


Flow as a Happiness Habit

We all experience Flow, even if it is in momentary encounters like having a wonderful conversation with a loved one or scaling the top of mountain and savoring the beautiful view.  Being in flow is a way to cultivate long-term happiness.  In fact, Lyubomirsky includes it as one of the happiness practices in the How of Happiness.

In order to make Flow your own happiness habit, here are a few happiness practices:

Happiness Habit #1: Remember Your Flow Affirmation

As I explained to the Juilliard students, the first step in creating a happiness habit around Flow is to remember their Flow Affirmations. Write down your Flow Affirmation and post it where you can see it.  Send yourself a text message with your Flow Affirmation. Make it your screen saver on your computer.  Put it on a post-it note and stick it on a bulletin board or in your instrument case.  Your Flow words are powerful reminders of what you are capable of doing!

Happiness Habit #2: Use Your Flow Affirmation to Boost Confidence

Your Flow Affirmation reminds you of what you are like at your best.  To boost your confidence, pick one word from your Flow Affirmation each day and make it a point to be that person.

For example, one student in the Juilliard class found that one of his Flow words was “calm”.   Focusing on the quality of calm was a great motivator to help him practice the viola more effectively.

Happiness Habit #3: Use Your Flow Affirmation to Answer the Voice of Your Inner Critic

Even high-achievers like the musicians in the Juilliard class experience the “inner critic”.  That’s the negative thought that crops up to tell you that you can’t succeed. Many students reported encountering the inner critic in the course of making music at rehearsals, practicing and performing.   Another common situation was “to compare and despair” where they compared themselves to other musicians who appeared to be farther along in their careers than they were.

These negative thoughts are perceptions and not the truth.  But it’s easy to fall in the trap of believing them.

Enter your Flow Affirmation.

Happy people are resilient and do not let the perception from their negative thoughts stop them from aspiring to do great work.  So here’s how your Flow Affirmation can help:

  • Become aware of the situations that give rise to your negative thinking.
  • When your inner critic threatens to derail you, answer that negative thought with one or more of your Flow words.
  • Then, take one action that proves you are in fact your Flow self.

In our Juilliard class, for example, students shared the when they were having a tough time in the practice room, and their inner critic was telling them that they would never make it, they could answer back with flow words like “courage”, “passion” and “confidence”.  A good action to take would be to keep practicing with a new strategy or reaching out to a teacher or mentor for suggestions on how to improve.

The Flow Affirmation thus served as a reminder that these musicians could, in fact, persist and bounce back with optimism. Because their Flow Affirmations came from their actual experience of optimal performance, they were able to believe in their potential.

And doing so made them feel a lot happier and more optimistic.

Happiness Habit # 4: Maximize Your Flow 

Another way to cultivate long-term happiness is to bring more Flow into your life.

Here are three ways to maximize your Flow:

  • Start by becoming aware of when you are in Flow. Savor it. It is one of life’s great moments.
  • Once you are aware of your Flow experiences, make it a point to do more of what puts you in Flow.
  • Flow is a state of complete focus. Therefore, when you do something enjoyable, become fully engaged in what you are doing. Be mindful when you practice, rehearse, converse with a friend, go out to dinner or work out. Turn off your phone. Avoid the temptation to multi-task.

Bottom Line:
The Juilliard students reported that knowing about Flow as a happiness habit made them feel more optimistic about their futures. They felt committed to making happiness a long-term goal and to practicing these Flow strategies on a consistent basis.

So build your happiness habit by tapping into and cultivating more Flow.