I’m sure you’ve experienced a moment when you’re totally ‘in the zone.’ Your attention is fully focused on what you’re doing – no thoughts about what you’re going to have for dinner. It might have happened during a sporting activity, at work, or while reading a book. You were 100% in the moment. This is flow.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) is a deep dive into this state. It’s a fantastic book, blending science, practical advice, and philosophical thought into an extremely engaging read. We’re going to discuss the book overall then look at some of the essential takeaways.
Although relatively easy to read, there’s a lot to unpack. The overall message is that cultivating flow states lead to a happy life.
He begins with an overview of the current science regarding some elements of human experience: happiness, consciousness, and quality of life. He then moves on to discuss flow as a concept. He gives examples from all areas of life to illustrate how it can be applied. Finally, he concluded with a philosophical discussion about the meaning of life.
I honestly can’t recommend the book enough. I found myself nodding in agreement as Csikszentmihalyi explained views very similar to my own. He’d then shift onto an idea I’d never considered but makes perfect sense.
What is Flow?
Throughout the book, Mihaly uses the terms flow and optimal experience almost interchangeably.
“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.”
When we’re operating at these limits, we don’t have the mental capacity to think about anything other than the task at hand. We become absorbed by the activity. Our internal monologue stills. We react.
That’s not to say that it’s a state that doesn’t support complex thought; flow states also occur in mentally demanding activities. The defining factor is that they’re all-encompassing.A physicist puzzling over a theorem will temporarily lose themselves in their work. Their brain has no room for anything not related to the problem at hand.
However, flow isn’t exclusive to high performers. Novices can experience it too. In fact, any activity can be converted into a flow state.
Is Flow the Secret to an Enjoyable Life?
“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 when skills match the opportunities for action.”
You now have an understanding of what the flow state is. Mihaly argues that the most rewarding lives maximize the amount of flow state we experience. He’s a world-renowned psychologist whose work is centered around happiness, so his opinion carries some weight.
“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, … even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable.”
Think about the flow states you experienced over the past few weeks. They don’t need to be grand or exciting. Did you enjoy them? Did they make you feel satisfied? Mihaly argues that the very best life is in essence one long flow state.
How to Trigger a Flow State?
If you weren’t aware of the concept before reading this article, then the flow states you’ve experienced up to this point are probably not intentionally cultivated.
In my opinion, the most useful advice Mihaly gives is to add complexity to the tasks you’re doing; just not so much that you become overwhelmed and the task isn’t completable. Rather, strike the balance so that you’re working towards challenging but completable tasks.
The difficulty of the task forces us to apply our full attention to it. It’s when our attention is given fully to the task that we enter into a flow state.
“Of course these chances for enjoyment must be cultivated; they don’t just happen.”
You can make any task challenging. It doesn’t matter how simple. My favorite example is when Mihaly writes about walking. He lists several ways we can add complexity:
- Plan a route to include stopping at certain locations.
- Pay attention to your style of walking – cultivate an economical style of movement.
- Track things: time, distance, landmarks seen.
- Add mini-challenges: time the changes of lights, only step on certain slabs, etc…
Orient your life around flow states by focusing on challenging but completable goals.
Cultivate an Autotelic Personality
Mihaly stresses that the goals you aim for should be picked by you. A lot of the world will do things because they are ‘supposed to.’ How many people go to work because they need to rather than because they desire to?
An autotelic personality is the opposite of the ‘I should do this’ attitude. The goals you choose to work towards should be chosen without consideration of how they appear to others. Do it because it interests you. It’s somewhat paradoxical; although we’re aiming for challenging goals, the end result is almost unimportant. It’s the act of flow that brings enjoyment.
“Learning to enjoy immediate experience. The outcome of having an autotelic self — of learning to set goals, to develop skills, to be sensitive to feedback, to know how to concentrate and get involved — is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty.”
He offers an excellent example of this when he discusses political prisoners.
Rather than succumb to despair, the prisoners decide to translate a poem into Hungarian. They worked through the poem line by line. Each prisoner would think of the best translation they could, share it with each other, and then vote on the best one.
This is arguably a pointless task, but it kept everyone fully engaged and in good spirits through a very bleak experience. If you develop an autotelic personality, you can enjoy even the most challenging situations life throws at you.
Living a Life of Purpose
According to Mihaly, experiencing lots of flow states is not enough to live a fulfilled life. It’s important to develop an overarching theme that connects them. Structure your goals so that each pushes you further towards a certain path.
“The separate parts of life will fit together — and each activity will “make sense” in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life.”
This was one of the few areas of the book I didn’t agree with. I have several hobbies that are wildly unrelated and don’t contribute to one long-term purpose. I don’t think that makes them any less valid. Should a successful businessman avoid pursuing his basket weaving hobby? It seems this a valid part of his life worth exploring even if it doesn’t contribute to his business goals.
In my opinion, a fulfilled life needs both long-term purpose and openness to spontaneity.
I’ve offered a summary of the most important concepts Mihaly covers. By no means is this a comprehensive review – there are many valuable ideas not discussed.
The ideas that we’ve explored can keep you busy for a long time. Develop an autotelic personality and cultivate flow states in your life. Remember, set challenging but achievable goals. If you structure your life in this way, not only will you get more done, but you’ll also be happier.
Go forth and flow!
By: Scott O’Neill