Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Have you ever heard about the concept of flow? For example, “I’m often in flow when I’m programming.”

I recently read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience written in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MC), an American psychologist. The flow term was coined by MC and popularized by this book. He defines flow as “optimal experience.” People are happiest when they are in a state of flow.

I expected a pretty dry book. On the contrary, Flow was a very inspiring book. It is a fascinating look into ways we can experience flow. Flow builds on thousands of interviews conducted by MC and his research team. It discusses themes where I expected flow to show up, namely hobbies, work, and sports. However, the book also discusses other topics that touch more broadly on how to get the most out of life, including

In short, it’s a great book to read for inspiration on how to get more out of life!

This post contains my notes to the book, interspersed with snippets that I found helpful.

MC’s summary at the start of the book

When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, if not all, of the following.

  1. The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
  2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  3. The concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals,
  4. and provides immediate feedback.
  5. One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
  6. Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
  7. Concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
  8. The sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

The most optimal flow activities

Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make.

To be able to experience flow, one must have clear goals to strive for.

People enjoy not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.

The key element of an activity that leads to optimal experience is that it is a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

Like reading, which was the most reported flow experience!

Faster, higher, stronger

The Olympic motto is a good way of summing up how physical activities can lead to flow.

We are more happy when we pursue cheap activities

When people were pursuing leisure activities that were expensive in terms of the outside resources required—activities that demanded expensive equipment, or electricity, such as power boating, driving, or watching television—they were significantly less happy than when involved in inexpensive leisure.

Anything can provide flow

Although the examples MC gives of optimal flow experiences are climbing, dancing, chess,

in theory, any job could be changed so as to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model.

Flow experiences organize the mind

The normal state of the mind is chaos. Without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time.

Activities conducive to flow experiences organize the mind, because these activities require that we [control] psychic energy, i.e. attention

A clear example of one such is science!

there is no better reason for doing science than the sense of order it brings to the mind

Having studied math, I can definitely sign off on this.

Adversity leads to strength

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.

To find purpose in suffering one must interpret it as a possible challenge.

Taking each new challenge not as something to be repressed or avoided, but as an opportunity for learning and for improving skills.

Interviewees who experienced severe setbacks and handicaps had more enriched lives after the fact because they were forced to reshape their lives to have meaning.

Several dozen individuals who were either congenitally blind or had lost their sight sometime after birth. What is so remarkable about these interviews is the number of people who describe the loss of their sight as a positive event that has enriched their lives.

Being autotelic

The book also uses the concept of being autotelic. Autotelic persons

Autotelic persons are bent on doing their best in all circumstances, yet they are not concerned primarily with advancing their own interests. Because they are intrinsically motivated in their actions, they are not easily disturbed by external threats. With enough psychic energy free to observe and analyze their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action.

An autotelic person knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pursuing. Having an autotelic self implies the ability to sustain involvement.

Someone who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life.

On isolation and solitary confinement

Ingenuity in finding opportunities for mental action and setting goals is reported by survivors of any solitary confinement.

Being autotelic was important for overcoming isolation.

The most important trait of survivors of isolation is a “nonself-conscious individualism,” or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking.

Have you read Flow? If so, I’d love to hear what you got out of it!