Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The world's foremost producer of personal development and motivational audio programs gives you the tools to unleash the secret of peak performance.Remember the last time that you were so focused, so motivated that you felt at the absolute top of your form -- alert, energized and free of self-consciousness? Chances are you were experiencing flow -- an almost euphoric state...

Title:Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
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Edition Language:English

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Reviews

  • Mark

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi created the notion of "flow" to describe the experience which we have all had -- but all too rarely for most of us -- of becoming so immersed in and challenged by an experience that we lose track of time, our own self-concsciousness and feel most fully engaged in life. Interestingly, he found, this has little to do with people's most enjoyable leisure activities. Folks love to watch TV and movies, eat dinner with friends and so forth, but rarely does that achieve a state

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi created the notion of "flow" to describe the experience which we have all had -- but all too rarely for most of us -- of becoming so immersed in and challenged by an experience that we lose track of time, our own self-concsciousness and feel most fully engaged in life. Interestingly, he found, this has little to do with people's most enjoyable leisure activities. Folks love to watch TV and movies, eat dinner with friends and so forth, but rarely does that achieve a state of flow. Doing work or an avocation we love, or -- for some of us, reading a really good book :) -- creates flow, where the experience is just challenging enough that it pulls us beyond our usual limits.

  • Tomio

    Flow was a interesting look into the titular state, that of being "in the zone" or the slightly more dated "on fire". Flow is the mental and physical state of being where one is completely absorbed in the task at hand, and so well matched to the task, that everything else disappears from awareness. Csikszentmihaly makes a distinction here between "fun" and "enjoyment", claiming that something does not have to be fun to be enjoyable, and the latter is ultimately preferable to the former. While a

    Flow was a interesting look into the titular state, that of being "in the zone" or the slightly more dated "on fire". Flow is the mental and physical state of being where one is completely absorbed in the task at hand, and so well matched to the task, that everything else disappears from awareness. Csikszentmihaly makes a distinction here between "fun" and "enjoyment", claiming that something does not have to be fun to be enjoyable, and the latter is ultimately preferable to the former. While a large portion of the book is dedicated to examples of how one can achieve this state in all aspects of life and how this can lead to a more pleasant and fulfilling life, from a game developer perspective I found the requirements for such a state much more interesting than the anecdotal evidence.

    Csikszentmihaly describes eight aspects of an enjoyable experience, though in terms of requirements, there are really four:

    1) Skill must match challenge, and vice versa. From my own experience, this is utmost in creating a state of flow. If skill exceeds the challenge of the task, then one falls into boredom and distraction, and if the challenge is too great for one's skill, there is only frustration. Attaining goals, therefore, must be difficult, but not impossible.

    2) Goals must be clear. Without clearly defined markers of achievement, an activity can easily fall into frustration. They grant direction and purpose to the task, and a way of knowing when one is done. The goal need not be anything more than completing the task at hand (such as hiking a mountain), so long as the goal is well defined.

    3) Feedback. There must be feedback that one is approaching one's goals. One needs feedback frequently enough to gauge how well one is doing, so that one can either feel good about the progress, or adjust tactics, depending on the content of the feedback.

    4) Concentration. If a task can be accomplished without explicit attention, then it is merely a distraction. The feedback should always guide attention to the next task.

    The other four aspects the author presents (that the activity removes awareness of factors outside the task, that one feels in control of the activity, that one's sense of self dissipates during the activity, and that one's sense of time is altered) to me all seem like effects rather than causes of flow.

    Csikszentmihaly was fairly strongly against "passive" flow activities like watching television, because he argued it required no skill and did not improve the self. However, having read

    I'm not sure I can entirely agree. If you accept his posit that social interactions can also be valid flow activities, then there is no particular reason observing and analyzing the interactions of others (televised or not) would not also be enjoyable and beneficial, if not always pleasant, per se. There must be a reason we watch bad television even when we

    it to be bad.

    So, round about, it is a decent book, and the first half at least is well worth the read for anyone working in interactive media.

  • Meg

    This is quite possibly the most important book I have ever read. Consider it the official "Handbook on Happiness." Part science and part philosophy, it essentially defines happiness itself, then proceeds to explain in detail how we can attain it every waking moment of our lives (hypothetically at least). Although far from a "light read," I found the intense mental concentration the book demanded to be almost physically pleasurable (yes, I am in fact the very definition of a nerd). When I closed

    This is quite possibly the most important book I have ever read. Consider it the official "Handbook on Happiness." Part science and part philosophy, it essentially defines happiness itself, then proceeds to explain in detail how we can attain it every waking moment of our lives (hypothetically at least). Although far from a "light read," I found the intense mental concentration the book demanded to be almost physically pleasurable (yes, I am in fact the very definition of a nerd). When I closed the book, I immediately begged my dad for his extra copy--just so I could go back through and underline the passages I will need to revisit from now until the day I die.

    If you are unhappy, anxious, or generally dissatisfied with the direction of your life, follow this pattern: (1) read the book's scientific assessment of happiness (or at least my summary below), (2) determine what element of "flow" is missing in your life, and (3) fix it! Thanks to this reading experience, I'm on to step #3 now. I feel enlightened with a unique self-understanding, convinced of the possibility of attaining happiness, and determined to eventually experience constant "flow."

    If you don't have the time and energy the book requires, read my gross oversimplification of Mr. C's genius below:

    WHAT IS HAPPINESS?

    A human being experiences happiness to the extent that he can mentally order his consciousness and fight off chaos (what Mr. C refers to as "psychic entropy"). This explains why animals (and people who fight daily for their own basic survival) experience almost constant flow. The meaning of their lives, the focus of their energy, is simple. It might not be enjoyable, but it's simple. We spoiled, idle folk are the ones whining on couches about the lack of fulfillment and happiness in our lives. Why? Because we are overwhelmed by so many complicated concerns that we don't know where to focus our psychic energy.

    WHAT IS FLOW?

    Here's the crux of the book. While it examines overall "happiness" briefly, it is more concerned with how to truly enjoy the everyday moments of life. Mr. C refers to the process of “losing yourself” and experiencing Buddha-like enlightenment/self-actualization as a state of “flow.” Everyone—from professional athletes to chess masters and punk street kids—recalls a moment in which they seemed to disappear as a person, entirely immersed in the activity in which they were engaged (this differs greatly from drug use and other chemically altering activities, which are temporary fixes for those desperately needing to experience “flow”). Mr. C collected data from various cultures, professions, socio-economic conditions and stages of life, then discovered certain conditions present during “flow,” including:

    (1) engagement in an activity that is both challenging and attainable (if the activity is too easy, we’re bored; if it’s too difficult, we’re anxious)

    (2) the ability to keep concentration focused on the activity (so… THAT’S the problem I had as a stay-at-home-mom :)

    (3) clearly defined goals that are within the individual’s control ("winning the Pulitzer Prize" is not a self-contained goal, for example, because you personally do not choose who wins the Pulitzer)

    (4) immediate feedback (our psychic energy tends to atrophy without some verification we’re on the right track)

    (5) deep, effortless involvement in the activity-which removes from awareness the worries/frustrations of everyday life (during flow, you “get lost” in what you are doing because so much of your psychic energy is engaged)

    (6) sense of control over your own actions (more of that fighting-against-chaos definition of happiness)

    (7) non-self-conscious individualism (paradoxically, you lose yourself in what you are doing and eliminate all self-criticism, yet when the process is complete you are actually a “more complex” individual. Mr. C states that “loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of the self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness OF the self.” THIS IS SO TRUE! As an actress and musician, my worst performances are always the ones in which I am self-conscious about the performance I am giving. There is no room for selfish awareness in flow!)

    (8) some alteration of time (either “hours feel like minutes” or vice versa)

    According to Mr. C, the reason most of us classify ourselves as unhappy is that we “keep widening the gap between jobs that are necessary but unpleasant, and leisure pursuits that are enjoyable but have little complexity… To fill free time with activities that require concentration, that increase skills, that lead to a development of the self, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking recreational drugs.” Once we learn to replicate these essential characteristics of flow, Mr. C contends that we can experience flow in every daily activity—whether performing brain surgery or washing the dishes.

    I especially appreciated the sections on how to create a meaningful “flow” relationship with your children, as well as his postulations about the flow experience through writing. His ideas on the correlation between attention disorders and depression are amazing. Only one downer—he occasionally spoke in a deprecating and somewhat condescending manner about religion. As a scientifically-minded individual who finds great purpose and opportunities in my faith, I found his comments too generalized. Other than that, he was intoxicatingly brilliant!

    We can experience flow in our home, work, personal relationships, daily activities, everything! We just glance down the list, discover what condition is missing, and get creative. When situations challenge our happiness, we address the problem in a healthy, proactive way and again free up our psychic energy to work toward our life goals.

    Bottom line—those who control their inner experience determine their quality of life.

    Preach it!

    FAVORITE QUOTES:

    There are literally thousands of [self-help books:] in print… explaining how to get rich, powerful, loved, or slim… Yet even if their advice were to work, what would be the result afterward in the unlikely event that one did turn into a slim, well-loved, powerful millionaire? Usually what happens is that the person finds himself back at square one, with a new list of wishes, just as dissatisfied as before. What would really satisfy people is not getting slim or rich, but feeling good about their lives. In the quest for happiness, partial solutions don’t work.

    Contrary to the myths mankind has created to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs… A meteorite on a collision course with New York City might be obeying all the laws of the universe, but it would still be a damn nuisance.

    There is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way.

    Mowing the lawn or waiting in a dentist’s office can become enjoyable provided one restructures the activity by providing goals, rules, and the other elements of enjoyment.

    “The purpose of flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow… It is a self-communication.” (a mountain climber on “flow”)

    Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself. Material conditions are secondary.

    Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.

    Goals justify the effort they demand at the outset, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal.

    If goals are well chosen, and if we have the courage to abide by them despite opposition, we shall be so focused on the actions and events around us that we won’t have the time to be unhappy.

  • Hadrian

    Very interesting book. I admit I was skeptical earlier with some pseudo-scientific terminology, but I become more convinced the more I read. Discusses the nature of happiness, by becoming totally focused in an action/thought, and a less of self-consciousness. Very interesting indeed.

  • Andy Mitchell

    My notes, including liberal use of direct quotes:

    8 elements of enjoyment:

    1. confront challenging but completable tasks

    2. concentration

    3. clear goals

    4. immediate feedback

    5. deep, effortless involvement (lack of awareness of worries and frustrations)

    6. sense of control over actions

    7. concern for self disappears (paradoxically awareness of self is heightened immediately after flow)

    8. sense of duration of time is altered

    5 elements of happy teenagers' growing up:

    1. clarity

    2. centering: pare

    My notes, including liberal use of direct quotes:

    8 elements of enjoyment:

    1. confront challenging but completable tasks

    2. concentration

    3. clear goals

    4. immediate feedback

    5. deep, effortless involvement (lack of awareness of worries and frustrations)

    6. sense of control over actions

    7. concern for self disappears (paradoxically awareness of self is heightened immediately after flow)

    8. sense of duration of time is altered

    5 elements of happy teenagers' growing up:

    1. clarity

    2. centering: parents' interest in the child in that moment

    3. choice

    4. commitment

    5. challenge: parents provide appropriate challenges for their children

    Quadrants of flow:

    Goal: High challenge, high skill

    Low challenge, high skill = boredom

    Low skill, high challenge = anxiety

    Roger Callois: Four kinds of play

    1. agon: competition

    2. alea: games of chance

    3. ilinx: vetigo, disorienting pleasures

    4. mimicry

    Yoga

    1. yama: restraint

    2. niyama: obedience

    3. asana: sitting

    4. pranayama: breath control

    5. pratyahara: withdrawal; ability to see, feel, and hear at will

    6. dharana: holding on; concentrate on single stimulus (opp. of 5)

    7. dhyana: intense meditation (sans external object of 6)

    8. samadhi: self-collectedness

    The goal of loss of self is opposite of flow, but the first 7 steps yield greater self-control similar to flow. These 7 steps can be applied in various contexts, with other ultimate goals.

    Music, Food: Consume passively or savor actively?

    Memorize facts not to memorize, but to gain understanding and contextualized knowledge.

    Applying scientific reasoning, mathematical thinking, is viewed as a pleasurable game by experts in the field. How can I encourage this intrinsic enjoyment in my students???

    Question: The Bible states that work is a punishment for sin. Is our current ability to specialize jobs a gift of systemic cooperation? Maybe for fortunate people like me who love my work, but certainly not for everyone.

    Transformational (not regressive) coping:" "If one operates with unselfconscious assurance, and remains open to the environment and involved in it, a solution is likely to emerge."

    Autotelic self:

    1. Setting goals

    2. Becoming immersed in the activity

    3. Paying attention to what is happening

    4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience

    How does someone stay relaxed under extreme pressure? "There is nothing to it. We don't get upset because we believe that our life is in God's hands, and whatever He decides will be fine with us."

    Significant childhood pain can lead to a well-adjusted adult's lifelong theme of service to correct the injustice.

    This book appears to assume an intrapersonal learning style (NF?)

  • Jeff

    Given the attention this book has received I had some pretty lofty expectations. Sadly, those expectations weren't met. Part of the problem is that "Flow" is widely cited by the current crop of pop-pscyhology books. For that reason I felt like I got the idea of "flow" long before I even cracked C's book. My "heard it all before" feeling wasn't helped by the redundancy that C builds into his text. Authors and editors take note, one really good example or analogy is usually enough to illustrate a

    Given the attention this book has received I had some pretty lofty expectations. Sadly, those expectations weren't met. Part of the problem is that "Flow" is widely cited by the current crop of pop-pscyhology books. For that reason I felt like I got the idea of "flow" long before I even cracked C's book. My "heard it all before" feeling wasn't helped by the redundancy that C builds into his text. Authors and editors take note, one really good example or analogy is usually enough to illustrate a concept. Two might be helpful, but any more than that and you've reached the point of diminishing returns.

    Another issue I had with the book was the way research was presented. C insists early in the book that he's not writing an academic work. For that reason he explains that research won't be cited in the usual way. The idea is that he'll spare lay readers the boredom that comes from a lot of high-handed academic jargon. One problem with this approach is that it makes "Flow" come off sounding much more fluffy and self-helpy than I expect it really is.

    Another problem with this approach is that today's readers have come to expect a certain amount of academic rigor in their pop-psychology and sociology books. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Jonah Leher, Steven Johnson and a host of other have found effective methods of integrating academic studies in a manner that's neither too daunting nor too pedantic. "Flow", by contrast, eschews this approach and suffers for it. In C's defense, "Flow" was written almost two decades ago, long before many of the aforementioned authors were even through grade school.

  • Zelda

    Csikszentmihalyi's seminal work in the field of positive psychology reveals a man with a ridiculously hard to spell last name. I can't be the first person to posit this as the reason why he became so interested in how people overcome mental chaos (psychic entropy as it is called in the book) to achieve harmony and, I almost typed satisfaction but that would be missing the point. Csikszentmihalyi (hereafter referred to as Mr. C) actually prescribes against a state of perpetual satisfaction becaus

    Csikszentmihalyi's seminal work in the field of positive psychology reveals a man with a ridiculously hard to spell last name. I can't be the first person to posit this as the reason why he became so interested in how people overcome mental chaos (psychic entropy as it is called in the book) to achieve harmony and, I almost typed satisfaction but that would be missing the point. Csikszentmihalyi (hereafter referred to as Mr. C) actually prescribes against a state of perpetual satisfaction because in order for humans to experience the full measure of life they must find the balance between external challenges and their own skill sets. In pursuing challenges that match your skill set you will continually add to your skill set and thus seek new challenges. This harmony will both be created by and result in what he calls flow: the full immersion of the attention in each moment and action of life.

    Well written throughout, I found the end of the book the most compelling. Here, Mr. C shows us the long view and addresses the synthesis of the various aspects of flow into a harmonious life. He focuses one section on life's meaning.

    Now, if your life has been infused with meaning by or through religion, you might not find this section as compelling as the others. Me, I've struggled to see the meaning of life. And by struggled, I mean that in my post-adolescence I've been largely satisfied to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?", with a shrug and a mumble and a, "Please pass the jelly." I don't know and I don't care.

    But my kids keep harping on about it. And when they were younger I could get away with things like, "The meaning of life is it is time for your nap." Or, "The meaning of life is pick up your sh!t. I just stepped on another Lego." But now they are getting older and these things don't work. So, it is nice to have options.

    Mr. C presents an interesting one. The meaning of life is meaning. Life doesn't come with a universal meaning. But that doesn't mean you can't give it one. So the purpose of your life is to give it some meaning.

    I dig that. It speaks to the part of me that likes to do it myself. My kids liked it. Everyone was happy. Then I stepped on a Lego and the moment was over but in that moment the seed of an idea was planted.

    I've presented the tiniest fraction of what the book contains. It is worthy of anyone's time and I can't think of a type of person who wouldn't benefit from reading it. Also, there are vampires and they fall in love. See, something for everyone.

  • Rowena

    "While humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience."- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

    I found this book very intriguing. It made me think a lot, especially on what it means to be happy and satisfied. This is not a self-help manual and the reason I picked it up despite it's self-helpy title and cover is because I had read some of Csikszentmihalyi's stuff in my developmental psychology course an

    "While humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience."- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

    I found this book very intriguing. It made me think a lot, especially on what it means to be happy and satisfied. This is not a self-help manual and the reason I picked it up despite it's self-helpy title and cover is because I had read some of Csikszentmihalyi's stuff in my developmental psychology course and found him very insightful. I was definitely not disappointed.

    The author defines flow as "the process of achieving happiness through control over our inner life." It's funny because I was talking to someone who was pro-cosmetic surgery and they were surprised that I was so against it (barring for reconstructive use). My argument was people do it because they believe they will be happy and it can eventually become an addiction. Maybe my argument was under-developed but I think this book supported my view.

    A link to the author's TED talk:

  • Nathan Maharaj

    You know that uncle you have, who doesn't have any kids and loves to talk your ear off every Thanksgiving, and he's a really nice guy, and he seems to know a lot of stuff, but when you look up the stuff he quotes he seems to always have it a bit off, and he never seems to have a book with him so maybe he did all his reading when he was young, but there's no point calling bullshit on him, and you get a sense he's not really listening anyway -- well, this book is written by that guy.

    This could ha

    You know that uncle you have, who doesn't have any kids and loves to talk your ear off every Thanksgiving, and he's a really nice guy, and he seems to know a lot of stuff, but when you look up the stuff he quotes he seems to always have it a bit off, and he never seems to have a book with him so maybe he did all his reading when he was young, but there's no point calling bullshit on him, and you get a sense he's not really listening anyway -- well, this book is written by that guy.

    This could have been an excellent 10 000 words, but I'm now 3 chapters in without any idea of what his plan is and how he can tell one chapter or sub-chapter from the next.

    I get what "Flow" is and it's great and I'm all-in. But this is diarrhea.

  • Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

    How must you live your life?

    Live it in happiness. But how to be happy? When I was a small boy I would often be missing my father for two straight days only to find out that he had been playing mahjong with friends nonstop for 48 or so hours, not getting tired, or sleepy or even hungry (despite the lack of proper meals). The game is played by a group of four, and when my mother would send me to check my father out from wherever part of the neighbourhood they’ve set up their mahjong table to play,

    How must you live your life?

    Live it in happiness. But how to be happy? When I was a small boy I would often be missing my father for two straight days only to find out that he had been playing mahjong with friends nonstop for 48 or so hours, not getting tired, or sleepy or even hungry (despite the lack of proper meals). The game is played by a group of four, and when my mother would send me to check my father out from wherever part of the neighbourhood they’ve set up their mahjong table to play, I’d see them still going at it seemingly still with full energy and attention, as if they have just begun their sessions.

    I never learned to play mahjong. But I got into my father’s second favourite game: chess. I’ve experienced playing chess games starting Saturday noontime and stopping only at noontime of the next day, Sunday. Never feeling any discomfort, tiredness or the lack of sleep. This is called THE FLOW—the secret of happiness, a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.

    Expand the scope of this “flow” and prolong it. Imagine yourself being in the “flow” until the day you die. Then you could say—regardless of your station in life—that you’ve lived life to the fullest. A quote from the book:

    “…happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside event, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.

    “Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy,’ said J.S. Mill, ‘and you cease to be so.’ It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarised it beautifully in the preface to his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: ‘Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”


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