Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
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Published: 1/1/1990
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's investigations of "optimal experience" have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Key Insights

In the modern age, many wonder why they feel stuck in a rut, and wonder from a distance about the secrets of those with happy and fulfilling lives. After studying thousands of people, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Cszikszentmihalyi found a simple distinction: the happiest people were those able to immerse themselves deeply in their activities, enjoying the challenge of practicing a skill for its own sake rather than for external rewards like money or recognition. In this book, Cszikszentmihalyi introduces this state of total attention as flow and explains how achieving this state in regular life can transform both our daily and longterm selves. .

Key Points

We turn to material goods, religion, and external rewards to find meaning in an indifferent world, but these things will never produce the gratification we seek.

When we feel unhappy in our lives, we tend to look to our world for solutions. Around us, we see people accumulating things like money and recognition, and we envy these results, considering them the means to a happier life. We may look to religion as an answer to the meaning that we cannot find in our secular lives.

However, all of these things have not proven to deliver on the fulfillment we need. Many of the main principles of religion have been unfounded, while many wealthy and famous people could tell you that their status hasn’t satisfied them for very long. To be sure, mental health professions see many wealthy patients who continue to struggle with feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction.

Cszikszentmihalyi explains that we tend to want to change the environment around us because biologically, human beings evolved to seek out basic pleasures— these pleasured restored order. The instant gratification from buying something new or getting attention online may make us feel good and are easier than practicing a skill that requires effort. For example, instead of spending a few hours engrossed in a book, many would choose to watch videos or Netflix instead because the latter is easier and instantly pleasurable. Often, we feel we deserve this pleasure as compensation for the difficult grinding pace of our lives— escapism feels good.

The rewards we get from this pleasure, however, are not comparable to the rewards we get from truly enjoying an activity. Feeling joy involves stretching ourselves, testing our limits by concentrating on a task, and feeling immersed in the process of improvement. Unfortunately, our genetic preference for pleasure over this enjoyment prevents us from experiencing it more often.

Cszikszentmihalyi states that with some effort and intention, we can control our attention and begin to privilege enjoyment over pleasure intellectually and then in practice. He asks the reader to consider that the time we spend on pleasure, like when watching TV, drinking alcohol, or scrolling through social media, is us at our most passive and can damage our ability to concentrate in the future. We should admit that although pleasure arises from the path of least resistance, enjoyment can come from taking control of our attention and directing it towards moments of concentration so we can actually move towards our larger goals.

Enjoyment is possible for everybody, but the means are unique to each person.

When we feel enjoyment, we notice that we are performing skillfully and intentionally. Cszikszentmihalyi says we recognize this as feeling “in the zone”, like when playing a close game of soccer or writing pages of an essay for hours, only to look up and notice that we’ve lost track of time. As we perform, we feel ourselves adjusting, our goal moving closer and closer with each effort.

In professional lives, this could look like a surgeon concentrating on their operation, attempting to make bloodless incisions and removing a diseased piece of flesh successfully. It could be an engineer or designer trying different models for their product. It could be a teacher focusing on getting their students to display their understanding on their faces.

In any scenario, enjoyment comes from acting on a goal and feeling deeply aware of our actions and their consequences. This sort of immersion comes from finding a balance between our skill level and things we find challenging— therefore, these sources of enjoyment are unique to the skills that interest us.

Think of the skills you love to practice. Maybe it’s running, painting, coding, debating or cooking. Enjoyment of these things comes from engaging in them to our best ability, and coming to understand what we know versus where we need to improve— in understanding what we want to achieve, we can feel the immediate feedback in everything we do.

In order to develop a new skill, we must overcome rewarding challenges that feel personal to us. To enjoy this process and also improve, challenge and skill must be properly balanced.

In order to get better at skills we find interesting, Cszikszentmihalyi emphasizes the importance of working just above our initial skill level. If the goals we set ourselves are too easy, we may grow bored and abandon the activity, just as we might become too frustrated if the goals are too difficult.

For example, you may enjoy practicing just hitting the ball over the net in a game of tennis when you’re first starting out, but this will become boring as your skill level increases. To continue to sharpen your skills as a tennis player, you may seek out a player who is more experienced than you to teach you how to be a better opponent. The rewards of this challenge will be reflected in the effort invested and the resulting improvement that would not have occurred if the opponent was too easy.

Additionally, the best skills to improve are those that feel aligned with our passions and personal goals. These skills are those that remain even when a material reward is not available, providing inherent value to us when we practice them. For example, we may decide to cook regularly because it feels fulfilling to try a new meal regularly, not because it will increase our status.

Cszikszentmihalyi gives another example of several prisoners who spent several years in a Soviet Prison. Despite an inability to change their material conditions, they continued to sharpen skills that they found inherently valuable. One prisoner played chess against herself in her mind, memorized her own poetry, and practiced fitness on a regular basis. Despite having little external influences to keep them motivated, these prisoners found meaning in their day to day lives through these processes.

Through discipline, we can train ourselves to be more aware of our surroundings.

Engaging in flow doesn’t have to be confined to competitive, professional or practical skills. We can also practice this sort of concentration in moments of leisure by utilizing our senses and tuning into our environments. Being mindful of our world exposes us to the wonders that often get taken for granted, and forging a connection with the world helps us understand what meaningful roles we can take on in the future.

Anyone who has paid careful attention to the sounds and sensations on a hike will recall a feeling of enjoyment in this acknowledgment of the complexity around us. Or when listening to a piece of music carefully, and noticing the way the arrangements of notes create certain feelings. This close interaction allows us a rare sense of connection with the world around us. In that sense, falling into flow can happen at any time by paying careful attention to the way we move through and observe the world.

This sort of attention allows for important personal growth and developing a complex relationship with every aspect of our lives. Like in all practices of flow, we emerge stronger afterward, but engaging in it involves discipline and effort. Cszikszentmihalyi insists that we can train ourselves to shift our attention to unexpected places by training ourselves to unplug and pay attention to things as ordinary as our regular walk to the store.

By practicing flow, we can change our thoughts from focusing on our flaws to focusing on complex and interesting ideas. We distance ourselves from our anxieties by always working towards something valuable.

Often times, our thoughts drift to focus on our anxieties, but Cszikszentmihalyi explains that with a little practice, this does not have to be the default place our mind wanders to. According to Cszikszentmihalyi, by participating inflow, we learn to focus on the external world, and our wonder only grows from this sort of attention.

He gives the example of the many scientists and thinkers who ended up doing their most important works during their free-time rather than at jobs where they were paid to do this work. Isaac Newton established his theory of gravity after spending two years at a farmhouse. Gregor Mendel’s gardening hobby led to his founding of the field of genetics. Albert Einstein worked by day at a Swiss patent office, pondering his theories of physics in his time off.

Although we may not all be as astute as Einstein, Cszikszentmihalyi explains that anyone can begin to direct their thoughts towards the complex ideas about the world around them. Not only does this practice lead to creative (and important) realizations, but it reduces the anxieties that plagued us in the first place. The more control we feel over our attention, the less susceptible we are to insecurities about our status and our future. Instead of feeling passive and vulnerable to our fates, we feel ourselves moving towards the things we find meaningful even in our passive thoughts.

Additionally, the more we throw ourselves into tasks, the more we learn to let go of our egos and trust in ourselves to overcome challenges as they arise. We learn to notice the laws the govern the world around us and how to use these laws to our advantage. Instead of feeling the need to give up when things get difficult, we know that we can use any opportunity to discover something new and move towards are ultimate goals.

When you approach your work as both a “game” and a “craft” and it stops feeling like work.

We may think of games as exclusive to times of leisure, but Cszikszentmihalyi explains that by setting small challenges for ourselves in our tasks, we can bring this sense of play into the professional part of our life, avoiding the draining nature of many jobs that are done only for the paycheck.

For example, an editor at work may decide that they want to pay careful attention to a common writing error for the day, experimenting with the ways they can pay attention to the project in front of them. A person who is networking could decide that their goal is to meet five people doing interesting work. A student could decide they want to learn as much as possible about a certain phenomenon on their next test. A runner could decide they want to reach various landmarks before certain times, surpassing their normal performance level. By focusing on winning these small games, it becomes not only simpler to complete the task at hand, but fun and playful.

To make things games, Cszikszentmihalyi suggests we set intrinsic rewards within the tasks themselves. These rewards should be inherently enriching, like learning more about a subject that interests us or noticing that we increased our performance in an area we’ve always wanted to improve.

Cszikszentmihalyi also recommends treating our work as if it is a craft, even if we are not a craftsman. He gives the example of a railroad car welder who won over his co-workers by becoming interested in the process of welding. His interests led him to learn every essential task on the railroad car assembly line, turning each learning opportunity in a challenge. He returned home from work content, spending his evenings cultivating his garden.

Cszikszentmihalyi says we can take a similar interest in our jobs by trying to learn as much as possible about the tasks that surround the work and turn it into a product. By taking such an intimate approach to our work, we can learn to understand and appreciate the effort and skill required to keep our industries running, and potentially where we’d like to work to increase our proximity to our goals.

By engaging in flow with our family and friends, we can pay closer attention to the important people in our lives and benefit our communities.

Flow doesn’t have to be a solitary state. Spending time with family and friends can be incredibly enjoyable too, and can enrich our lives in unforeseen ways.

In family life, Cszikszentmihalyi recommends focusing on providing honest feedback and making unconditional love and support clear to all. Family life also becomes more enjoyable when everyone’s differences are recognized and accepted for what they are, and nobody’s needs are neglected. By turning your attention towards promoting these things in everyday interactions, family life can feel stronger and more fulfilled.

Cszikszentmihalyi also points out that parents who practice challenging skills such as carpentry or hiking, rather than drinking or spending time in front of the television, are more likely to see their children want to emulate these skills. Parents can introduce flow to their children by demonstrating the enjoyment possible from these activities and building these habits as a family.

Our friendships can benefit from careful attention too. Friendships are essential for validating our unique personalities and expressions of these personalities. When meeting with friends, we can notice how these interactions nurture our expressive sides and attempt to nurture our friends’ unique qualities in return. By throwing ourselves into shameless self-expression, we increase our self-esteem and motivation to be the best we can be.

Finally, we can find purpose in looking at our communities for growth opportunities. By avoiding our communities, we could miss out on lifelong friendships, connections, or help. We also avoid learning about other people and how the people around us organize towards collective change. Cszikszentmihalyi suggests we invest in our community relationships with a flow-like mindset, aiming to learn something new by interacting with the cultures we come from or the places we live in.

We can create meaning in our lives by establishing harmonious goals and working towards them

Cszikszentmihalyi emphasizes that anyone can create meaning in their life, even if it feels like life holds none. This meaning has to come from the individual. What are the challenges you dream of overcoming in your life? What things are important to you, disregarding the opinions of others?

By answering these questions, we can establish goals and then act on them. Action is the main tenant of flow— many people write to-do lists but never get to these items. In order to move things off our to-do lists, we should feel a strong sense of conviction and responsibility for what we do.

Cszikszentmihalyi gives the example of Malcolm X who cultivated ambitious goals even while in prison. He felt a personal responsibility to fight against the social conditions of his childhood which resulted in poverty and illness for his family. No matter where we are, we can understand what things we wish to fight for and start to build our lives around them.

Cszikszentmihalyi says that our goals should express a theme, working together for an ultimate purpose. Understanding of our goals can come from our past, and things we want to help change about ourselves and our world. They could come from reading and reflection and noticing which things stir our souls. Either way, understanding our goals helps us understand which skills are we will find exciting and intrinsically motivating.

The Main Take-away

A meaningful life is within reach for everybody and can be achieved by entering flow: a highly focused mental state resulting in productivity and growth. By ignoring external rewards or opinions, practicing activities for their inherent value allows every moment to feel joyful and important. Learning to turn our attention towards activities that support our goals allows us to spend more time lost in a state of growth and play. This can be achieved by developing a heightened appreciation for the small details in the environment around us, and by facing difficult challenges without fear. By learning how to enter flow states in all aspects of our lives, we grow more efficiently as people and as citizens of the world. Finding meaning starts with turning off the television and finding ways to break a sweat and get creative.

About the Author

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychology professor, researcher, and leader of the positive psychology movement. He is the former head of psychology at the University of Chicago. Currently, he is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is a notable researcher of happiness and creativity. He is the author of many books and over 120 articles and book chapters. His works are highly influential and widely cited.

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