“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Book Summary
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is a 1990 book on happiness and how to obtain it.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is achieved not through external means (e.g., money, fame, influence, or material riches) but by controlling consciousness – by controlling our inner, moment-to-moment experience of life.
It’s not about what happens “out there” in the world, but how we respond to it and how we experience it “in here,” in consciousness.
“What I ‘discovered’ was that happiness is not something that happens,” he writes in the introduction. “It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
Again: we are not happy because of what’s “out there,” but because of what’s going on “in here.” It’s not about the external things; it’s about our inner experience of them. It’s about what we’re experiencing in consciousness.
Being happy means we’re experiencing something enjoyable. It’s a state of consciousness, and our state of consciousness is not the direct result of what’s happening but how we’re interpreting it. This is easily proven. You could, theoretically, feel ecstatic despite your external world crashing down. Likewise, you could feel miserable despite being rich, famous, and otherwise “successful.”
Csikszentmihalyi uses the term optimal experience to describe momentary episodes of enjoyment: “It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile.”
He continues: “…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.”
When Csikszentmihalyi tried to understand exactly how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves – when they had optimal experiences – he found that many of them described these moments with the word flow. He defined the term as “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.”
The book explains in detail what this experience of flow feels like, what it’s made of, and how each of us can experience it more often – and thus, how each of us can become happier (and more evolved) as a result of it.
In short: Happiness is not about external things but about our moment-to-moment experience. We can be rich, but our experience can be one of misery. We can be poor, but our experience can be one of ecstasy. The key to happiness, therefore, is to control consciousness – to control our moment-to-moment experience. The optimal state of consciousness we can experience is flow – a state of deep involvement and intense focus. The book’s goal is to teach us how to access flow more consistently and thus become happier.
Flow is a wonderful book with important ideas I mostly agree with. Csikszentmihalyi’s take on happiness makes a lot of sense. Getting more flow into our lives is important.
At times, the ideas have been made too complicated for my taste (perhaps it has to do with the somewhat outdated language). The concept of flow has been made too complicated as well. Also, the book is quite long. Other than that, it’s a great read, and I’m certainly a big fan of Csikszentmihalyi and his works in general.
Update: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi passed away on October 20th at the age of 87. According to his Facebook page, he spent his last days at home, surrounded by his family. A short summary of his life can be read here: May the Flow be with you, Mihaly. RIP.
While I’ve never met the man personally, I’ve certainly been a massive fan of his work for a long time. The fact that I’m writing a book about flow probably says enough about how important and near to my heart the topic is.
1. Looking for Happiness in All the Wrong Places
“When people try to achieve happiness on their own, without the support of a faith, they usually seek to maximize pleasures that are either biologically programmed in their genes or are out as attractive by the society in which they live. Wealth, power, and sex become the chief goals that give direction to their strivings. But the quality of life cannot be improved this way. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.”
“After each success it becomes clearer that money, power, status, and possessions do not, by themselves, necessarily add one iota to the quality of life.”
The reason we aren’t happy is that we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. We give too much importance to biological pleasures – e.g., eating delicious foods or having sex – which do make us feel good in the short-term but then quickly give rise to cravings and, of course, can lead to more or less severe cases of addiction.
We also chase extrinsic goals, such as money, material wealth, fame, or power. Csikszentmihalyi refers to them as symbols of happiness given to us by society. We are entrained to think they will make us happy once we achieve them. Research clearly tells us that’s not the case. See, for example, our summary of The How of Happiness for detailed information on that.
We fail to understand that the external circumstances in our lives don’t contribute nearly as much to our happiness as we imagine. The truth is, we can be rich, famous, and outwardly “successful” but feel miserable anyway. Similarly, we can be poor and “unsuccessful” but feel ecstatic. We also fail to understand that getting as much pleasure as possible won’t make us happy (see Csikszentmihalyi’s difference between pleasure and enjoyment at the end of the summary).
Neither pleasures nor external circumstances lead to happiness. So what does?
2. The Real Key to Greater Happiness: Inner Harmony & Control of Consciousness
“Why is it that, despite having achieved previously undreamed-of miracles of progress, we seem more helpless in facing life than our less privileged ancestors were? The answer seems clear: while humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience.”
“How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe. Certainly we should keep on learning how to master the external environment, because our physical survival may depend on it. But such mastery is not going to add one jot to how good we as individuals feel, or reduce the chaos of the world as we experience it. To do that we must learn to achieve mastery over consciousness itself.”
“Given the recurring need to return to this central question of how to achieve mastery over one’s life, what does the present state of knowledge say about it? How can it help a person learn to rid himself of anxieties and fears and thus become free of the controls of society, whose rewards he can now take or leave? As suggested before, the way is through control over consciousness, which in turn leads to control over the quality of experience. Any small gain in that direction will make life more rich, more enjoyable, more meaningful.”
Happiness is an inner experience. If we experience inner harmony, what Csikszentmihalyi calls order in consciousness, we feel good regardless of external circumstances. Therefore, learning to control our inner experience – our state of consciousness – is the royal road to happiness.
So, then, what is consciousness? And how do we control it?
3. Consciousness Defined
“… what, then, does it mean to be conscious? It simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occuring, and that we are able to direct their course. In contrast, when we are dreaming, some of the same events are present, yet we are not conscious because we cannot control them.”
“The events that constitute consciousness—the ‘things’ we see, feel, think, and desire—are information that we can manipulate and use. Thus we might think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information. This dry definition, accurate as it is, does not fully suggest the importance of what it conveys. Since for us outside events do not exist unless we are aware of them, consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality.”
The key to greater happiness is to gain mastery over what happens in consciousness. To achieve such mastery, it’s necessary to understand what consciousness is and how it works. To keep things simple, it’s best to think of consciousness as subjectively experienced reality. Put differently, consciousness is our moment-to-moment experience, which may include sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions, sights, sounds, smells, and so on.
The reason controlling consciousness is the key to greater happiness is simple and obvious. We can make ourselves happy or miserable regardless of what is happening “out there in the world” by changing the contents of our consciousness – by changing what we choose to pay attention to.
4. On the Importance of Attention
“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”
“The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used.”
“Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events—such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions—happen there, it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”
Attention determines the content of consciousness, and therefore our moment-to-moment experience, and therefore our happiness. This is easily proven. When attention is focused on the “good” things in life, we tend to experience gratitude, joy, and other positive emotions. When it’s focused on the “bad” things, we tend to experience anger, fear, guilt, and other negative emotions.
This makes attention the most important tool in the task of improving our lives, and we would be wise, therefore, to learn to use it wisely. (Attention, by the way, is both an active and passive process. It can be put unto something directly, which is sometimes called top-down attentional control. Or it can be seized by something in what is sometimes called bottom-up attentional control.)
5. Disorder in Consciousness: Psychic Entropy
“One of the main forces that affects consciousness adversely is psychic disorder—that is, information that conflicts with existing intentions, or distracts us from carrying them out. We give this condition many names, depending on how we experience it: pain, fear, rage, anxiety, or jealousy. All these varieties of disorder force attention to be diverted to undesirable objects, leaving us no longer free to use it according to our preferences. Psychic energy becomes unwieldy and ineffective. Consciousness can become disordered in many ways.”
“The basic pattern is always the same: some information that conflicts with an individual’s goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how central that goal is to the self and on how severe the threat to it is, some amount of attention will have to be mobilized to eliminate the danger, leaving less attention free to deal with other matters.”
“Whenever information disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals we have a condition of inner disorder, or psychic entropy, a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness.”
This may sound more complicated than it is. Disorder in consciousness simply means that something isn’t to our liking. Something that happened isn’t in line with our goals. Our experience doesn’t match up with our intentions and ideas of how life should be. Maybe we wanted to go for a run, but it started raining. Or we wanted to get married, but our girlfriend broke up with us.
When something enters our consciousness that doesn’t fit with our ideas of how things should be, we experience disorder. There’s friction. There’s resistance. Our experience ceases to flow. Csikszentmihalyi calls this psychic entropy.
6. Order in Consciousness: Flow
“The opposite state from the condition of psychic entropy is optimal experience. When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy. But whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: ‘You are doing all right.’ The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment.”
“They are situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against. We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term many of the people we interviewed had used in their descriptions of how it felt to be in top form: ‘It was like floating,’ ‘I was carried on by the flow.’ It is the opposite of psychic entropy—in fact, it is sometimes called negentropy—and those who attain it develop a stronger, more confident self, because more of their psychic energy has been invested successfully in goals they themselves had chosen to pursue. When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve, because, as in the case of Rico and Pam, even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable. In flow we are in control of our psychic energy, and everything we do adds order to consciousness.”
When the information that is pouring into your consciousness is congruent with your idea of how things should be, you are experiencing order in consciousness. Everything is as it should be, as you would like it to be. Things are flowing smoothly. You are doing alright. Your life is going in the right direction. It’s all good.
And because it’s all good, you can fully engage with life. You’re in the flow of things. You’re enjoying yourself. When someone were to ask you to describe your experience, you would say: “It’s like floating. I’m being carried on by the flow.”
That’s why Csikszentmihalyi has called this the flow experience. When there is order in consciousness, you can forget about yourself, your worries, your problems. You can focus fully on what you’re doing. You can be fully concentrated. Time flies. You’re experiencing an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.
7. Flow Defined
“’Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for their own sake.”
"... I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—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.”
Flow happens when there is order in consciousness, everything is going smoothly, things are going well, and you’re engaged with life. It’s that harmonious, deeply enjoyable feeling of total involvement. It is what Csikszentmihalyi calls optimal experience. It is what people describe when they’re asked about the most enjoyable moments of their lives.
Here are a few facts about flow from the book:
It’s universal: “Apparently the way a long-distance swimmer felt when crossing the English Channel was almost identical to the way a chess player felt during a tournament or a climber progressing up a difficult rock face. All these feelings were shared, in important respects, by subjects ranging from musicians composing a new quartet to teenagers from the ghetto involved in a championship basketball game. … regardless of culture, stage of modernization, social class, age, or gender, the respondents described enjoyment in very much the same way. What they did to experience enjoyment varied enormously—the elderly Koreans liked to meditate, the teenage Japanese liked to swarm around in motorcycle gangs—but they described how it felt when they enjoyed themselves in almost identical terms. Moreover, the reasons the activity was enjoyed shared many more similarities than differences. In sum, optimal experience, and the psychological conditions that make it possible, seem to be the same the world over.”
There is usually effort involved: “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. 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. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage.”
It’s not necessarly pleasant (see the difference between pleasure and enjoyment below) in the moment: “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. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. 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.”
The experience becomes autotelic (intrinsically rewarding): “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding. Surgeons speak of their work: ‘It is so enjoyable that I would do it even if I didn’t have to.’ Sailors say: ‘I am spending a lot of money and time on this boat, but it is worth it—nothing quite compares with the feeling I get when I am out sailing.’ The term ‘autotelic’ derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to 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.”
8. The Elements of Flow – How to Get More Flow into Your Life
“As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following.
First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, 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.”
When you ask people about the best experiences of their lives, they mention at least one, and often all, of the elements. By reverse-engineering these elements, we can create more flow in our lives. We can do this by pursuing more activities that have many of these properties or by adding these properties to the activities we’re already doing.
The elements of flow Csikszentmihalyi mentions in the book are (they don’t perfectly correlate to the ones he wrote about in the above quote):
- A challenging activity that requires skills
- The merging of action and awareness
- Clear goals and feedback
- Concentration on the task at hand
- The paradox of control
- The loss of self-consciousness
- The transformation of time
If these elements are met, you are likely to have a deeply enjoyable experience – you are likely to enter a flow state. Another way to put this: When these elements are met, an activity becomes autotelic or intrinsically rewarding.
9. The Benefits of Flow
“When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve, because, as in the case of Rico and Pam, even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable.”
“Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow.”
“The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows. It is the way Rico was able to draw so much out of his ostensibly boring job on the assembly line, or R. from his poetry. It is the way E. overcame her disease to become an influential scholar and a powerful executive. Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.”
To simplify, there are essentially two benefits to flow according to Csikszentmihalyi:
- Enjoyment in the present. If we are able to enter a flow state, we can enjoy even the most mundane activities. We are fully engaged, deeply focused, and without a worry in the world.
- Personal growth for the future. Because flow usually involves meeting challenges that are right at the edge of our skill level, this forces us to push beyond our current capabilities, leaving us more capable, skilled, and confident as a result.
10. The Autotelic Self/Personality
“Why is playing a game enjoyable, while the things we have to do every day—like working or sitting at home—are often so boring? And why is it that one person will experience joy even in a concentration camp, while another gets the blahs while vacationing at a fancy resort? Answering these questions will make it easier to understand how experience can be shaped to improve the quality of life. This chapter will explore those particular activities that are likely to produce optimal experiences, and the personal traits that help people achieve flow easily.”
Whether flow happens or not depends on two main factors – the activity and the person. Some activities are more likely to produce flow experiences than others. Boring, mundane, routine activities are not conducive to flow. Meanwhile, games, sports, arts, and hobbies are very conducive to flow. It is simply a lot easier to enjoy yourself and experience flow when engaged in your favorite hobby, feeling motivated and excited, than when engaged in an objectively trivial chore you feel like you “have to” do.
That being said, for some of us, almost everything can be boring, while for others, almost everything can be enjoyable. Those who find it easy to enter flow and can experience it even in objectively boring activities are said to have autotelic personalities. They possess certain traits that allow them to experience flow more easily, and thus more frequently.
These traits are the result of genes and childhood, nature and nurture. While they are mostly fixed once we’re grown-ups, they also remain malleable to some degree throughout adulthood, allowing everyone of us to become more autotelic and to increase our chances of experiencing flow more frequently.
Three traits Csikszentmihalyi mentions in the book are attentional control, self-consciousness, and self-centeredness. Autotelic individuals are good at controlling their attention and are low in self-consciousness and self-centeredness. The good news: we can learn to improve our attentional prowess and to become less self-conscious and self-centered. The result: we are more likely to experience flow in our lives.
11. Pleasure VS. Enjoyment
Csikszentmihalyi makes an important distinction between pleasure and enjoyment. The latter, for him, is like a synonym for flow. Being in flow, things flowing smoothly, everything flowing effortlessly – these are simply words and phrases people in his studies used to describe the experiences in which they most enjoyed themselves. Enjoyment, therefore, is Csikszentmihalyi’s royal road to growth and happiness.
Pleasure, on the other hand, does neither lead to growth nor real happiness. Csikszentmihalyi defines it as a feeling of contentment we get when biological needs or social conditionings have been met. It’s a cheap kind of happiness derived from, for example, good food, good sex, or watching television.
If growth and fulfillment are the goal, we want to design our lives in ways that enable for more enjoyable experiences, rather than merely pleasurable ones.
(This is the same distinction Martin Seligman makes in Authentic Happiness, though he refers to gratifications rather than enjoyment.)
Here are some quotes from the book on this idea.
“When considering the kind of experience that makes life better, most people first think that happiness consists in experiencing pleasure: good food, good sex, all the comforts that money can buy. We imagine the satisfaction of traveling to exotic places or being surrounded by interesting company and expensive gadgets. If we cannot afford those goals that slick commercials and colorful ads keep reminding us to pursue, then we are happy to settle for a quiet evening in front of the television set with a glass of liquor close by.
Pleasure is a feeling of contentment that one achieves whenever information in consciousness says that expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met. The taste of food when we are hungry is pleasant because it reduces a physiological imbalance. Resting in the evening while passively absorbing information from the media, with alcohol or drugs to dull the mind overexcited by the demands of work, is pleasantly relaxing. Traveling to Acapulco is pleasant because the stimulating novelty restores our palate jaded by the repetitive routines of everyday life, and because we know that this is how the “beautiful people” also spend their time.
Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”
“When people ponder further about what makes their lives rewarding, they tend to move beyond pleasant memories and begin to remember other events, other experiences that overlap with pleasurable ones but fall into a category that deserves a separate name: enjoyment. Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.
Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. Playing a close game of tennis that stretches one’s ability is enjoyable, as is reading a book that reveals things in a new light, as is having a conversation that leads us to express ideas we didn’t know we had. Closing a contested business deal, or any piece of work well done, is enjoyable. None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we think back on them and say, “That really was fun” and wish they would happen again. After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.
Experiences that give pleasure can also give enjoyment, but the two sensations are quite different. For instance, everybody takes pleasure in eating. To enjoy food, however, is more difficult. A gourmet enjoys eating, as does anyone who pays enough attention to a meal so as to discriminate the various sensations provided by it. As this example suggests, we can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention. A person can feel pleasure without any effort, if the appropriate centers in his brain are electrically stimulated, or as a result of the chemical stimulation of drugs. But it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.
It is for this reason that pleasure is so evanescent, and that the self does not grow as a consequence of pleasurable experiences. Complexity requires investing psychic energy in goals that are new, that are relatively challenging.”