‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)

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When do we feel most happy? And can we replicate it? Let’s address the (modern) concept of ‘happiness’. It’s a loaded term: it doesn’t have to mean hysterical laughter or a permanent state of bliss. A better way to think of it is ‘contentment’. The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ME-HIGH CHICK-SENT-ME-HIGH) describes it as a ‘flow state’, or of constituting an ‘optimal experience’:


‘The 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…we feel in control of our own actions, masters of our own fate…we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be.



It’s never easy to summarise works of philosophy or psychology. They’re dense for a reason, their hypothesis being built up brick by logical brick into a sturdy conceptual fortress. They aren’t conducive to easily digestible one-sentence takeaway messages (and you should view anything that is with suspicion, if not of the source material, then of your understanding of it). Initially with these works there is a lot of groundwork to cover, especially in clarifying definitions, and in Flow Csikszentmihalyi refines his definition of ‘optimal experience’:


‘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 or worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.’



We’ve all experienced this. It could be while we’re immersed in a hobby, or at dinner with friends, or playing sport. All distractions are blocked out as we focus on the task. We lose all sense of time. We go deep, and when we finally surface back into the ‘real world’ we feel cleansed, lighter, invigorated, satisfied.


It sounds very much like the modern trend (resurrected from ancient philosophical practices) for mindfulness. The difference with flow states is in the notion of ‘deliberate practice’, the setting and pursuit of just-achievable goals which, although it has its roots firmly planted in psychology, has been recently popularised through the so-called ‘ten thousand-hour’ rule.


‘The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals. And where skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand.’



Csikszentmihalyi begins by outlining the ways in which modern society and culture has left us feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied, even in a time of great material wealth.


‘To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in response to its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards for herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.


In other words, we have to determine our own rules for the game, and therefore what constitutes ‘success’. However, Csikszentmihalyi cautions that this fulfilment of personal enjoyment is not a free pass to decadence; we must balance any personal motivation with the demands and obligations of being a contributing member of a society.



The Stoic (and Buddhist) notion of ‘control of consciousness’ – choosing the response to our situation – is nothing new. So why have we not embraced and perfected it by now, thousands of years later? Firstly, ‘it cannot be condensed into a formula, it cannot be memorized and then routinely applied’: it requires direct experience derived from individual application ‘in the same way athletes or musicians must keep practicing what they know in theory’. Secondly, the control of consciousness is altered by changes in culture; ancient Greece can’t be compared equally to modern London. ‘Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized. As soon as it becomes part of a set of social rules and norms, it ceases to be effective in the way it was originally intended to be’. Control over consciousness is critical for controlling the quality of an experience.


The term ‘consciousness’ can be problematic, having been adopted by New Age spirituality. Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges this early on:

Some people have a tendency to become very mystical when talking about consciousness and expect it to accomplish miracles that at present it is not designed to perform. They would like to believe that anything is possible in what they think of as the spiritual realm.’ This is an example of the practical and logical approach which Csikszentmihalyi uses which makes Flow so readable.


So, what then is this misunderstood term ‘consciousness’?


‘The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body.’


It simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring and that we are able to direct their course…Thus we might think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information.’

However, we are not computers, and not every bit of information is evaluated and processed equally; we are selective in what bits enter our consciousness based upon our ‘intentions’ – ‘bits of information shaped either by biological needs or internalized social goals’ that ‘act as magnetic fields, moving attention towards some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others.’


The key to directing our focus is to find – or create - enjoyment in an activity. Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between ‘pleasure’ and ‘enjoyment’: ‘We can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investment of attention. It’s the difference between passive and active engagement.


Csikszentmihalyi lists eight factors in finding ‘flow’ in any experience. These include choosing a challenging activity that requires skill (#1), the opportunity to set clear goals and receive immediate feedback (#3) and the loss of self-consciousness (#6). Particularly intriguing is rule #5, the ‘paradox of control’, in which an activity offers ‘the possibility, rather than the actuality of control.’ In other words, it’s when you reach that balance between an activity being just within the reach of your abilities: not too easy to be boring, and not too difficult to be disheartening That’s the magical ‘flow channel’.




Flow is not a book listing optimal experience activities, but rather how to find optimal experience in any activity. As the title suggests, ‘flow’ is suited to many physical activities, and Csikszentmihalyi discusses the flow potential of yoga and martial arts (and sex). However, he also details how optimal experience can be found in mental and intellectual activities: reading, doing word and number puzzles, looking at art, listening to music, even eating. And surprisingly, flow states can also be experienced through the organisation of knowledge, such as memorizing historical dates or scientific knowledge. For the introverts or less physically competent among us this can be empowering; you don’t need to skydive or drive a race car to achieve a flow state. The same rules which apply to physical flow states also apply to mental flow states.


The key is that you choose the parameters: you ‘make a game’ of any activity, where you decide the rules and what constitutes a ‘win’. But there’s a caveat in that, whilst many activities are capable of enabling an optimal experience, not all people are capable of instigating it: there may be psychological or societal barriers (Csikszentmihalyi shows that many of these are artificial constructs)


A key concept in Flow and the achievement of optimal experience is that of the ‘autotelic’ experience: that ‘an optimal experience is an end in itself’, or intrinsically motivated (versus an ‘exotelic’ experience, which is externally motivated). By extension, the ‘autotelic self’ – ‘a self that has self-contained goals’ – is able to translate potential threats into enjoyable challenges. Obviously, this can be applied to specific areas – career, sport, hobbies, relationships – or to life in general. And because the components which enable the flow experience are essentially concerned with creating order from chaos, it is also an ideal strategy for dealing with stress, and Csikszentmihalyi covers this in detail, outlining a series of practical steps.


But how do we choose the parameters of our personal game of life? What are the goals worth pursuing?


‘It does not matter what the ultimate goal is – provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s work of psychic energy…As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life.


The key, however, is to take action!


‘There is a mutual relationship between goals and the effort they require. Goals justify the effort they demand at the outset, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal.’




However, Csikszentmihalyi cautions against too many choices and too broad goals – a condition peculiar to modern life - which causes uncertainty and zaps commitment. But how do we know which goals are worthy? (And is this not THE eternal question throughout life?). Csikszentmihalyi offers no easy path here: only through trial and error and reflection. This may seem like a cop out to some, but to me it only reinforces Csikszentmihalyi’s intentions and credentials. He does go into quite a lot of detail on how to we may choose our personal life goals, and though he always reiterates that these are personal choices, he does offer a shortcut of sorts: a return to the classic values of ages past.


Great music, art, architecture, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy and religion are there for anyone to see as examples of how harmony can be imposed on chaos.’


Don’t be misled by the title or subject matter: this is a work of legitimate academic scholarship which offers a practical guide to enriching the good times - and placating the not-so-good times.



On the subject of ‘deliberate practice’ I can recommend The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, which busts the myth surrounding the ‘ten thousand-hour rule’.




Joel Ingles 


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