Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
is a nonfiction work on psychology by world-renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is credited with the codification of the concept of “flow,” a psychological state of intense focus and concentration. Flow
is the seminal work on the subject.
In the preface, Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow is a “process of total involvement with life” and that the book is a summary of decades of research designed for a general audience. Csikszentmihalyi explores the concept of happiness, noting that it has been a focus of human philosophical endeavor since the beginning of recorded thought, and yet we’re no closer to a true understanding of what happiness even is.
Csikszentmihalyi, concluding that happiness is a moving target and is different for everyone, questions whether studying it is even a worthwhile cause. Happiness should be considered in terms of when
you are happy rather than why
. He describes an experiment wherein people were given pagers and buzzed randomly during the week, at which point they would write down how they felt and what they were doing. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that happiness was not random, but could be predicted based on the activities of the participants. Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi defines it, is a state of intense focus and absorption wherein you lose all sense of place and time.
Csikszentmihalyi examines the nature of consciousness, which he describes as a biological process instead of a mystical one, noting that without consciousness, we would be primitive beings reacting instinctively to everything, but because we filter our experience and reactions through our consciousness, we can direct our energies toward attaining happiness. While he sees great power in our ability to create, to invent, and to lie, he cautions that he has seen no evidence of any kind of mental power or extra-sensory perception.
The pursuit of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi concludes, involves improving the quality of our lives in a substantive way. He sees two strategies for improving the quality of life: changing the external conditions affecting our lives and changing our reactions to those conditions. Attaining happiness, therefore, requires that we know which of these strategies to apply in a given situation. We cannot, for example, change our genetic code, so we can only manage our reactions to what life has handed us.
The conditions of flow are examined. Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow can be achieved either through careful planning or through complete chance. If we enjoy an activity, engaging in a planned event can bring intense enjoyment. On the other hand, sometimes, planned events exceed expectations and the enjoyment is unexpected. The inverse is when an unexpected event or activity results in joy, or when an event we dread turns out to be more enjoyable than expected. Csikszentmihalyi examines how flow manifests in physical activities, such as dance, when we become lost in our own body’s achievements and capabilities.
Although most people experience flow instinctively through physical activity, Csikszentmihalyi notes that the mental aspect of flow is always present, whether we realize it or not; achieving flow through mental activities is often easier. He notes that when the body is idle, the mind wanders, usually gravitating towards problems and free associates. The natural state of the mind is chaos; flow is partly achieved by imposing structure and order on our own thoughts. New ideas are generated when we force our thoughts beyond what we already know.
Everyone has work of some sort, and Csikszentmihalyi explores how work becomes more enjoyable when it is made into a game-like activity with goals and rewards. Jobs should be designed to follow the same patterns as flow, but a challenge exists in that many people enjoy their work but find their free time dismal because they are not using their skills and their mind is allowed to fall back into chaos. People must learn how to impose order on their free time so that it also follows the course of flow.
Flow can also be applied to our solitude and relationships with other people. We often find solitude to be a bad experience because it lacks the structure and goals that other people often supply. The key to enjoying solitude is not to distract ourselves with entertainment, but to structure our alone time with goals and activities. We can also create more satisfying relationships by recognizing the patterns of flow and seeking out friends who support us in our goals, offering an emotionally safe space in which to experiment and try new things.
Everyone must be able to deal with stress and negative events. There are three ways of doing this—through emotional support from social connections, through our own personal emotional and mental resources, and finally through learned coping strategies. Since we must expect negative things to happen to us, developing these resources is a necessity.
Finally, Csikszentmihalyi notes that life is intrinsically meaningless in universal terms, but that this does not mean that life cannot be given meaning through working towards goals. Each individual goal has meaning, and thus the overall goals of our lives have meaning. Attaining flow throughout our existence requires our choice of goals works towards a mental and spiritual effort that will keep us motivated even when we are exhausted.