Book Review: Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Today’s book review is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I first came across the concept of Flow in my previous job, where it was presented to us as a concept that will help you manage people better – that you should try and manage people so that they were in a state of “flow” as often as possible – being stretched so that they are learning, but not so much that what they were doing was too hard.

But the concept is much more than that. To quote from the introduction:

“We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like….. moments like these are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Before buying the book, I found it difficult to work out how you could write a whole book about this one, fairly simple, concept. But it is an engaging book, packed with information and new ways of thinking about life. Csikszentmihalyi has spent his professional life researching happiness, and his conclusions have led him to believe (with considerable evidence) that most people are happiest at these times when they are stretching themselves to achieve something.

The conditions for the ideal flow activities are that they provide a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. They push the person into higher levels of performance, and lead to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. They transform the self by making it more complex. In turn that means that the activity needs to continue to grow and become more complex so that it continues to provide the growth and challenge to make it meaningful. Csikszentmihalyi sets out four major components of an activity that will tend to make it enjoyable

  • we are confronting tasks we have a chance of completing
  • we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing
  • there are clear goals
  • there is immediate feedback

and then what it will feel like

  • we have deep and effortless involvement that takes us away from everyday life
  • we will have a sense of control over our actions
  • concern for the self disappears, but emerges stronger after the experience is over
  • the sense of duration of time is altered, so that hours can pass by in minutes

To achieve the state of flow, it is not enough to be challenged by something. You need to be giving all of yourself to it – so that you are deeply involved in the activity. Conversely, an activity does not need to be seem by society at large as worthy, or difficult, for a person to achieve flow from it. Those who have been imprisoned for long periods in difficult circumstances have achieved flow from the unlikeliest of activities, through consciously setting themselves goals and challenges.

The book goes on to describe all the different ways in which people have achieved flow throughout the centuries, and how much of music, art, literature and religion can be viewed through a lens which suggests that they are all ways in which the human race tries to formalise ways in which flow can be achieved more easily.

The two sections which I found most thought provoking were those on amateurs and professionals, and the chapter on work. Csikszentmihalyi describes the common way in which professionals in any field tend to look down on hobbyists (he prefers to call them amateurs, given the root of the word comes from those who love what they do). Someone who is constantly challenging themselves and learning something new, even in a part time way, and even not as well as a professional could do is achieving much better personal growth than someone who is a professional but hasn’t learned anything in the last ten years. Certainly that section made me rethink the way I react to people with hobbies that I find deadly dull or that they aren’t very good at.  And for my main hobby, blogging – well it certainly fits as a flow activity for me. What I’ve realised, though, is that I should spend more time commenting (harder work, but more rewarding) than passively reading my feedreader. It’ll probably improve the experience.

But the big challenge for me was the chapter on work. Csikszentmihalyi’s research (in which he asked people randomly throughout their day to write down what they were doing, and how happy they were) showed that people are most likely to achieve a flow state (in a fairly liberal interpretation of having a higher than average level of challenge and using more skills than average) while they were working than not working. But when they were working (even in that state), they were more likely to wish they were doing something else.

I’m sure I would have been one of those people – enjoying what I was doing at work, but wishing I was somewhere else. This chapter has made me think harder about what about my work gets me to that flow state, and what I can do in my non work life to match the flow experiences I undeniably get at work. I’ve been wishing for a while that I could work four days a week, rather than five, because I don’t feel I’m getting enough time for myself at the moment. But perhaps what I should be doing instead, is working towards changing my work so that more of it is about being in a flow state, and it feels like time for myself. It has the advantage of possibly being more achievable.

So my reactions have probably made clear that I found this book captivating. I will be re-reading it every year or so, I expect.

  15 comments for “Book Review: Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience

  1. December 29, 2007 at 5:13 am

    I think flow is related to SEEKING, but I haven’t followed this hypothesis up.

  2. December 29, 2007 at 5:58 am

    I think skiing/snowboarding fits the description of flow perfectly. It’s certainly how I feel… One of the great things about that sport is it’s constantly changing — the amt of snow, the quality of the snow, the # of other people on the mountain, etc. So even if I went 10 days in a row, I’d be challenged in different ways and not get bored. Also snowboarding forces a person into that immediacy and brings one out of oneself, you know, out of self-consiousness.

    I am watching my children play together — imaginative play — and I’d say they’re in a flow state at the moment.

  3. December 30, 2007 at 2:47 am

    Also, I just remembered about this which, whilst it’s not that convenient to read, suggests to me that the flow concept is probably a bit elastic.

  4. December 30, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Potentilla, thanks for both the links. Once again my reading seems to be following yours at a dilatory pace. The second, cynical, link is probably quite fair, also (I can imagine that much more than one book of this would pale, for example), but I do think it’s a useful concept to think about how you spend your days.

    Jennifer, sporting examples are quite common in the book, but I can imagine snowboarding in that category more easily – with nature providing the variety and the new challenges that you wouldn’t get from, say, swimming.

  5. November 17, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    I find myself to be a person who does not “multi-task”. I like to concentrate on one problem and seek the optimal solution. That is when I am in a state of flow.

    I also consider blogging a state of flow. I completely lose my sense of time. Often, I find myself emerging from my flow state having worked well into the night.

    However, flow does not have to be solitary. I find that in meeting with peers I can also achieve a state of flow, where a conversation or discussion also leads to a loss of the sense of time. Sometimes, I achieve flow just by listening.

    Good post. Csikszentmihalyi’s research is continuing.

  6. March 14, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    This book reminds me of the message in “Bhagavad Gita” – Do your duty. Don’t be anxious about results.

  7. March 21, 2010 at 8:21 am

    I’ve been a student of flow for 25 years. Actually, I was a student 25 years ago. Now, I’m pretty much in flow ALL the time. Really. I think activities like hypnosis (I am a hypnotist) or meditation or yoga can help you be there more consistently, deep prayer, too.

    It doesn’t have to be something complicated or challenging. Usually it’s just something I want to learn about.
    So maybe the Seeking hypothesis is a valid one. I simply enjoy being alive and being in the moment.

    Flow is really about being in the present moment. The secret to JOY is being here now, not regretting the past and not worrying about the future.

    A book I would highly recommend is Toxic Success by Pearsall.

  8. thisblackwomansopinion
    April 14, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    A few months ago, someone recommended this book. I didn’t have time to read it. Now that my life seems to be stuck in the “spin cycle” I have decided that it is time for a change. I like the reviews and will take the time, make the time, to read this book.

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  10. Jhon
    December 1, 2010 at 9:40 am

    I heard about ” the Flow ” when Iwas reading the book ” Your Magic Zones ” by
    Wayne Dyer… I just feel the need of read the Flow now, but I’m in Barcelona now and I don’t think I can get it… I wish there would be like a book crossing movement here… but maybe there is one , so if you know ….

  11. December 1, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I will send you my copy of Flow. Perhaps we can begin a book exchange. It is an excellent book. Reading this reminded me that I need to be more “present” in the here and now.

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