Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Cover image for Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyiby Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

ISBN 978-0-06-133920-2

“Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” 

Now more than twenty years old, this work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is still the foundation of modern study of happiness. Based on his work as a research psychologist at the University of Chicago, Flow seeks to summarize, for the general reader, “decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience—joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life.” Flow has floated around on the edges of my radar for years, so this year I decided to finally get it under my belt by including it in the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

2014tbrbuttonCsikszentmihalyi’s work is solidly based in research methods of the social sciences, and provides scientific backing for some things we already know through general wisdom. The basic things we might think of as pleasurable—sleep, rest, food and sex—are what Csikszentmihalyi describes as “homeostatic experiences.” The needs of the body must be fulfilled, and it can be pleasant to do so, but these experiences will rarely, if ever, “produce psychological growth.” For Csikszentmihalyi, the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment, or flow, is that “enjoyment includes change or growth. It gives a sense of accomplishment that mere pleasure does not. Enjoyment requires the investment of attention.” Flow focuses on identifying the characteristics of experiences that are truly enjoyable rather than merely pleasurable.

Eating and personal care by necessity take up about fifteen percent of our time according to Csikszentmihalyi, and sleep another thirty percent, but what we do with the rest of our time can be optimized to ensure enjoyment. Yet despite historically unprecedented amounts of leisure time, there is a paradoxical failure to transform that leisure time into genuine enjoyment. Studies that monitor flow states show that people more commonly report experiencing flow at work than in leisure, yet most people desire more leisure time. But while work has built in rules and parameters, leisure often suffers from anomie, or a lack of rules and goals, to guide and give meaning to the experience. We do not want to experience so many demands on our free time that we become anxious and overwhelmed, but nor do we want to feel bored or complacent.

Four principles should describe an activity that can induce flow:

  • You have a chance of completing the task
  • You are able to concentrate on the task
  • You understand the goals of the task clearly
  • You receive immediate feedback on your progress

Four feelings define the flow experience:

  • You feel an involvement so deep it eclipses other worries and frustrations
  • You feel in control of your actions
  • Your self-consciousness temporarily disappears
  • Your sense of the passage of time is altered

The overview of Csikszentmihalyi’s work provided in Flow is high level and largely theoretical, as “a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.” It is left to the reader to figure out how to apply the broad principles to the specifics of their own situation. Nevertheless, Csikszentmihalyi’s studies have looked at many areas of life, from work to leisure to personal and community relationships, showing that the principles shared here can be applied to most areas of life. Flow is not quite academic, lacking citations though it includes end notes for those who wish to pursue particular items further, but it is aimed at a college reading level audience. Nor does Csikszentmihalyi neglect the potential downsides of the flow state. For example, people who are able to experience flow only in one activity or part of their life will engage in that activity at the expense of other things, not because they think other things are necessarily unimportant, but because the flow state does not come naturally to them there. I would especially recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand why certain experiences are so enjoyable, and what they can do to experience this feeling in other parts of their life.

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Quiet by Susan Cain

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