You’ve probably had the experience of being completely absorbed in an activity, totally focused, losing track of time, your body moving effortlessly, your mind clear of all distractions and worries. You were “in the zone.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state “flow.”
By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Harper Perennial, New York, 1990
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I think it’s pronounced “cheeks-sent-me-highly”) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on positive psychology.
In this groundbreaking 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as,
“… the state in which people are so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’ [p. 4]
He says that while in the flow state we have optimal experiences in which our physical or mental abilities are stretched to their limits in an effort to achieve a challenging and worthwhile goal.
Why is this important?
Because when we are in flow, having optimal experiences, we find true happiness.
“But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.” [p. 4]
To be clear, this is not the kind of happiness that comes from watching your favorite sports team win the championship or eating a delicious meal. These experiences, wonderful though they are, bring us only fleeting pleasure.
Flow, and the optimal experiences that occur within flow, lead to lasting enjoyment.
Yet 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.” [p. 3].
Flow is based on about twenty-five years of Csikszentmihalyi’s research into happiness. It’s not a “how to” book in the usual sense. It’s an exploration of the principles or foundations on which happiness can be achieved. Because it turns out that happiness, contrary to the US Declaration of Independence, “cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” In other words, happiness isn’t found directly. Instead it’s a by-product of how we lead our lives.
OK, so what are the principles of flow?
Csikszentmihalyi says there are eight characteristics that typify optimal experiences:
- They are challenging physical or mental activities that require skills to complete.
- They require attention or psychic energy. We must focus on them completely.
- The goals are clear.
- Feedback is immediate.
- They bring order to consciousness; the intense focus blocks out the chaotic thoughts, worries and distractions that usually flash across our minds.
- We feel a sense of control over our actions.
- We become less self-conscious.
- They alter our perception of time.
Looking at this list, it’s not surprising that people often experience flow playing sports or games.
For many years, I’ve enjoyed inline skating or rollerblading. Each weekend, weather permitting, I go for a long skate along our local cycling trails. I start at one suburban park not far from my home and skate north about 7 miles (11 km) to another park in the next suburb. I rest for about fifteen minutes and then skate back. It’s a great workout. I hadn’t realized until now that the exhilaration I sometimes feel is an example of flow.
When I first started doing this, my goal was just to cover the distance between the two parks without having a heart attack. The challenge was simply to build up stamina. Next I started timing myself: could I get faster? I’ve set a goal; to cover the distance in under 30 minutes. This means I have to develop better skating technique. I need to pay attention to form – keeping my knees bent, back rounded, weight shifted back over my heels. And I have to stride properly, leading with my hips so that my falling body weight contributes to the push of the opposite leg. These days, I’m trying to learn a skill called “double push.” I haven’t reached my goal yet, but I know my technique is getting better.
Csikszentmihalyi is clear that flow isn’t just limited to physical activity. We can experience it at work, with friends and family, or during cultural activities like listening to music or reading books.
These optimal experiences lie within a narrow range where skills and difficulty are roughly in balance. If our skills are too advanced or the challenge too easy, we become bored and distracted. On the other hand, a challenge that is way too difficult for our skills will make us feel frustrated or anxious. But when our skills are matched with the level of difficulty, then not only can we become fully immersed and experience deep enjoyment, we also grow.
Flow is a profound book. There’s a lot here about how to live our lives to build lasting enjoyment and satisfaction.
The last chapter of the book is about tying it all together to make meaning in our lives, about stitching all those optimal experiences into a coherent optimal life. It echoes some of the themes from Clayton Chirstensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life? which I reviewed here.
There are also elements of stoicism in Flow, which has come up in a couple of books I’ve recently read. Csikszentmihalyi advises not being overly concerned about what others think of us, for example. He says we need to break free of the constraints of social conventions because they sap our psychic energy and create chaos in our minds – the exact opposite of flow.
I have to say I did not experience flow reading Flow. This is mainly because Csikszentmihalyi’s style is formal and leans to the academic. I skimmed through several of the middle chapters that look at flow in specific facets of our lives like work and family.
That said, he explains his ideas clearly. He puts a name to something most of us have experienced from time to time, and he shows how important those experiences are to our lives.
Flow is well worth the effort.
Thanks for reading.
Update (Nov. 17, 2021): Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi died on October, 20, 2021. Here’s a tribute to him from The New York Times.