Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“(…) if one finds flow in work, and in relations with other people, one is well on the way toward improving the quality of life as a whole.”

Flow is a pearl of contemporary psychology literature, conceived by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University and former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

What is Flow?

Athletes define flow as being “in the zone”. This can be best explained as a state where there is a good match between one’s own capabilities and the challenge at hand, so that the individual finds it rewarding to spend effort on an activity to achieve a goal. This might sometimes be a painful and difficult experience, but it results in a sense of satisfaction and personal growth once completed.

Csikszentmihalyi defines flow 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 a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

The author studied hundreds of “flow experts” – including artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters, and surgeons – to develop his theory. He found that flow – or “optimal experience” as he also refers to it – requires a range of circumstances to take place.

(…) the common characteristics of optimal experience: a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear rules as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.

Flow is not exempt from effort. On the contrary, it typically involves significant sacrifice in order to make the experience worthwhile and rewarding.

(…) 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.

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.

Impact On Personal Growth

Csikszentmihalyi has a fantastic way of explaining how flow contributes to personal development. He uses the term “complexity” to describe the effect of flow on the human personality. According to him, experiencing flow makes you a more complex, sophisticated and multidimensional person, who is better equipped to perceive and deal with the reality around.

In our studies, we found that every flow activity (…) provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.

Levers To Improve The Quality Of Life

In his book, Csikszentmihalyi identifies two strategies to improve the quality of life: to change external conditions to match our goals and to change how we experience those conditions to make them fit our goals better. He suggests that neither of them is effective if used alone. Being able to change how to experience external conditions requires a person to gain “independence” from the environment.

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 terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.

He introduces “consciousness” as a powerful tool to gain such level of independence from the environment and compares it with a “clearinghouse for sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas, establishing priorities among all the diverse information”.

(…) we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world.

A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside’, just by changing the contents of consciousness.

 (…) the control of consciousness determines the quality of life.

And he rounds off his idea beautifully with these words on the power of consciousness:

Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself. Material conditions are secondary (…)

In this context, the author presents “attention” as the key lever to control consciousness.

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.

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 (…)

Flow is not a self-improvement, “how-to” book, but a manual presenting a very innovative theory about happiness that is easy to read and digest.

If you want to hear straight from the author, watch his TED Talk in our video-article The State Of Full Engagement.

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