The Great British Bake Off returned to American televisions on Friday, June 16, ushering in another season of show-stopping Charlotte Royales and gingerbread houses, ever-so-slightly risqué quips, and heart-melting civility.
The show’s ability to inspire deep devotion in its fan base has been much discussed. But less frequently remarked-upon is the way it showcases the joy of flow—and inspires viewers to dedicate themselves to their own hobbies, just for the fun of it.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studies happiness and creativity, developed the idea of “flow” to describe the ecstatic state of deep concentration that occurs when we are truly and deeply engaged by a task. We’ve all felt it, whether while determinedly assembling IKEA furniture, delving into an absorbing project at work, or learning new choreography in a dance class. When you become so immersed in what you’re doing that you barely notice the passage of time, that’s flow.
In a 2004 TEDTalk, Csikszentmihalyi described seven different attributes of flow. In addition to complete focus and losing track of time, he also details how flow produces a deep feeling of competency, a loss of ego that leads to a sense of serenity, and an intrinsic sense of worth—the activity is inherently satisfying without external reward. This describes the experiences captured on The Great British Bake Off to a T.
The experience of watching the show is joyful in part because it’s so fun to watch talented people practice their craft at a high level. We’re watching flow en masse. The same can be said for throwing pots or forging knives, and there are reality shows for both—but baking is so much more relatable.
On the show, baking is its own reward, sweetened by the occasional handshake from judge Paul Hollywood or a “scrumptious” from judge Mary Berry. The grand prize is simply a giant bouquet of flowers and an engraved silver platter, presented at a picnic. It feels more like the last day of camp than a victory ceremony. As for the stress—the time limits, the difficult bakes, the problem-solving when your royal icing just won’t set? As Csikszentmihalyi tells it, challenges aren’t an impediment to flow, they’re a condition of it. He says that flow occurs in situations in which you are doing something you enjoy and “your challenges are higher than average and when your skills are higher than average.” That could mean mastering a tricky piece on the piano, making headway on a new writing project, or perhaps building a skyscraper out of chocolate and shortbread biscuits.
Writer David Rakoff, the beloved essayist, journalist and This American Life contributor who died in 2012, has written extensively of his love affair with crafts. Rakoff’s projects included decorated wooden boxes, hand-painted eggs, miniature folding screens, and duct-tape wallets. In an episode of This American Life titled “Meet the Pros,” Rakoff describes the difference between writing and crafting for him. “When seated at the computer I have to either check my watch, eat something, call a friend, or abuse myself every 10 minutes. By contrast, I once spent 16 hours making 150 wedding invitations by hand and was not for one instant of that day tempted to check my watch.”
As Rakoff notes, it can be hard to get into a state of flow when you’re getting paid to do the same thing every day, even if it’s something you love—like baking. “If you love to bake, never open a bakery,” says Allison Robicelli, a baker, cookbook author and inventor of the Nutella lasagna. “When I was baking full time, cooking savory was the only joy I had, because it wasn’t expected of me.”
Even when the feeling of flow you get from paid work is enjoyable, it often takes an emotional backseat to hobbies.
“I have this idiot savant talent where I can taste something in my head and write you a recipe that gets there,” says Susan Reid, food editor of Sift, King Arthur Flour’s baking magazine. “It’s almost like music, how music can show up in your head as it is.” This echoes a composer Csikszentmihalyi quotes in his TEDtalk, who described writing music saying, “My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment.”
But despite her preternatural talent and very fun-sounding job, Reid says that she’s more likely to get into a state of flow while gardening and swimming in open water.
The problem here isn’t that getting paid to bake automatically makes it less fun. Rather, it gets harder to tap into a state of flow when we gain so much expertise that our passions become less challenging.
If you want to re-discover the flow in your favorite pastime or incorporate it into your work, it’s a good idea to come up with new ways to stretch your skills. I worked as a baker for a stint after college, and I still love to bake. But as Csikszentmihalyi would predict, I’m most in the zone when I’m working on something ambitious—several variety of cookies at once, a massive birthday cake, or a technically demanding pastry I’ve never made before. In an essay for Salon, Rakoff mourned the loss of satisfaction he derived from crafting duct-tape wallets as he got better at it. “The wallets got nicer and nicer, the craftsmanship ever more deft, and often there is sufficient gratification in that, but with each new billfold, I felt the pleasure of creation ebbing ever farther out.” And so he started a new obsession with hand-blowing and decorating eggs.
That’s why the skilled amateurs on the GBBO seem so absorbed as they grapple with the technical challenge of making a smooth dome of marzipan or create a show-stopping lion made entirely of bread. At some point, every contestant is going to be in over their head, and that’s the real fun of it—not because they face the prospect of failure, but because they’re taking their abilities to a whole new level. Even the judges understand the importance of getting out of their comfort zones. “I’ve been baking for a really long time, but I’m still learning, and do you know I learn from our bakers,” Mary Berry says in one episode. “So I shall be there seeing what I can absorb, too.”