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Date Author Title
2012-02-29 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I love it when I find a book that explains something I sensed but didn't understand well enough to express it myself. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial, 1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of those books.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi was looking for ways to define human happiness. He discovered that “happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power commend. 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.”

 

Through his research, he found that the happiest people were those who found joy in what they were doing. This lead him to his theory of optimal experience or Flow which he defined 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.”

 

By examining the accounts of many people participating in different activities, he found that there were similarities in the way people experienced Flow. First, the activity needs to require skill and be challenging. If it is too easy, it results in boredom. If it is too difficult, it results in anxiety. That balance of skill and challenge is central to a Flow activity.

 

He also found that Flow activities blend action and awareness. The participants tend to become so involved they often lose a sense of time. The joy of optimal experience is such that, as he explains, “the purpose of flow is to keep on flowing.”

 

Another important aspect of Flow is immediate and accurate feedback. The tennis player who swings the racket gets feedback by seeing the ball land in the opponent's court. If the ball hits the net, the feedback tells the player to adjust on the next swing. This leads to a sense of control, another important part of Flow experience. People who can control their environment and make changes as needed are happier than those who can't and this sense of control is vital for enjoyment and Flow.

 

When these conditions are met, according to Csikszentmihalyi, the person experiences Flow and the enjoyment provided by that state of mind. When the activity become the goal in itself, Csikszentmihalyi called that an autotelic experience. The person is involved in the activity purely for the activity and not for any external reasons, and this changes the focus of life. He explains, “Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals.”

 

Most people would probably guess that their leisure activities, their hobbies and pastimes would be the source of most of their Flow experiences. Csikszentmihalyi found an interesting situation here and termed it “the paradox of work.” He found that although many people said they would rather be doing something other than work, they reported a much higher incidence of Flow while at work. He explains that the nature of work often requires a higher level of skill and involvement than leisure activities. For example, he found that watching television is actually a very low Flow activity for most people, but he did note that reading is an almost universal Flow activity.

 

Although this book is now two decades old, it is filled with great ideas and has inspired much of the research which is currently being done in the field of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi's work has helped many understand the nature of happiness and what can be done to increase a positive affect for students, teachers, friends, and family members. He has opened the way for a brighter future for many people.


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