In addition to having the most unpronounce-able name in all of western psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is also one of the most prominent “positive psychology” theorists and researchers around. It’s no surprise that his book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, describes the “state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in the activity.” What might surprise you is Csikszentmihalyi’s claim that flow (optimal experience) is not elusive or mysterious, that it doesn’t just come and go at random. Rather, he asserts that flow can be cultivated, courted, and put to use in our self-development.
I’ve chosen to re-read and review this book because I think that so many of us art-makers have experienced flow, and could benefit from Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about how to create it and experience it more often.
I’ll cover some of the book’s content below, but you can skip directly to my opinion if you prefer.
Csikszentmihalyi’s optimal experience (flow) is “a state in which people are so involved 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). Sound familiar? In his research on the matter, he found that,
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not 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. Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue — yet these could have been the best moments of his life. (pp 3-4)
He also believes that true flow experiences are unique in that they represent an internal re-ordering, and that each time you experience flow, you become a more complex person. He means “complex” in a good way, here — that we become more dynamic, more able to take on challenges, and more engaged with the world each time we allow ourselves to push past difficulty and experience flow in our work and leisure. In other words, these optimal experiences are the fertile ground for growth and personal development.
The book, originally published in 1990, is a different kind of treatise on happiness than most of the self-help books you will find. Csikszentmihalyi’s research focuses on life-work satisfaction (“happiness”), and at the time of publication, he was using some interesting techniques to get self-reports from participants in all walks of life. He would give each research participant a pager and a log book. At random intervals throughout the day, the pager would beep and the participant would record what they were doing, and how they felt, etc. What he discovered was that certain people experienced high levels of satisfaction at work or at play, but not in the ways you might expect.
For instance, we might naturally assume that people experience flow more frequently when they are at rest than when they are at work, but Csikszentmihalyi’s studies suggest the opposite. Because flow is more likely to happen when you are focused on a task — when you are pushing yourself a little bit — it is actually more common for flow to occur at work unless your leisure-time involves similarly challenging activities such as sports, music, art, etc.
The good news is that there is a very specific set of variables that combine together to create flow, and that once you understand these variables, you can (to a certain extent) control them and use them to experience flow more often. That elusive feeling of being completely “lost” in your work need not be so elusive. I will discuss those characteristics of flow in a future post.
Chapters of this book include:
- Happiness revisited
- The anatomy of consciousness
- Enjoyment and the quality of life
- The conditions of flow
- The body in flow
- The flow of thought
- Work as flow
- Enjoying solitude and other people
- Cheating chaos
- The making of meaning
I give this book 4.5/5 stars. As a person who truly enjoys those fleeting moments of flow that come during my creative (and other) work, it was truly liberating for me to believe that I could control that experience to some degree — invite it more frequently and more deeply into my life and use it to the benefit of myself and others. I have put the principles of this book into practice and, for me, they hold true. The ideas described in “Flow” have encouraged me to spend more of my leisure time in challenging and/or creative pursuits, rather than just sacking out on the couch and watching TV.
Because Csikszenmihalyi is an academic, a researcher, and a professor, the book does at times run the risk of becoming a bit dry and technical. It was an early attempt to describe his research findings to the general public, and you can tell sometimes that he is either out of depth (writing about topics that were recent research discoveries and, therefore, not as well articulated or understood) or off on theoretical tangents that are of interest to him but may not necessarily be of interest to the reader. Mercifully, he resisted the temptation to fill the book with footnotes and references, and instead includes a detailed appendix with running academic commentary in case you want to know more about a particular subject. Without this appendix format, I would have given the book a lower score.
Finally, the book was published in 1990, and can sometimes feel a bit dated. You get the distinct sense that the spectacular arrival of the internet and its resultant complex global climate would contribute interesting ideas to this discussion. I would be interested to read his more recent publications, but haven’t done so. This book still stands as the best introduction to his thoughts and ideas. I believe this book has the capacity to enrich our lives on a personal, creative, and professional level and I highly recommend it.
Have you read it? If so, what did you think? If not, does the idea interest you?