Flow

by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Cover image

Publisher: HerperPerennial
Copyright: 1990
Printing: 1991
ISBN: 0-06-092043-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 280

Buy at Powell's Books

I expect all of us have become so engrossed in some activity that time either lengthens or disappears, we no longer notice our surroundings except as related to the activity, and any problems or discomfort drop entirely out of mind. Our full or nearly full attention is devoted to one activity, which both challenges and rewards the focus. Csikszentmihalyi proposes the term "flow" for this state, and its nature, causes, implications, and connection with happiness are the focus of this book.

With a subtitle like "The Psychology of Optimal Experience" and "nationwide best-seller" on the cover, Flow could be mistaken as yet another in the long line of self-help books about the power of positive thinking, meditation, or some other simple tactic to transform one's life. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi is partly writing to a similar audience. However, he is also a professor of psychology and an active researcher in the field. Flow is a popularization and an attempt to translate psychological research into possible courses of action, but it's a popularization of his own work and there are no simple checklists or strategies. It's more fascinating and more useful because it surveys a field of work, presents results that aren't always tied neatly together, and treats flow as a human psychological state with causes and results, grounded in solid research.

Csikszentmihalyi starts by defining happiness, as distinct from pleasure. Happiness, in his definition, is an active sense of accomplishment and improvement. Pleasure, by contrast, is a satisfaction of basic biological desires or a sense of static contentment. Put another way, he defines happiness similarly to esteem or self-actualization at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and pleasure as satisfaction of physiological desires and physical safety. Much of the research on which this book is built was gathered through a technique called the Experience Sampling Method, in which a study participant is interrupted at random times throughout the day with a pager and records their thoughts, feelings, and emotional state in a structured and analyzable form. It's through those results that he tries to make happiness a measurable phenomenon.

The thesis of this book is that the best way to achieve happiness is through flow. Therefore, the ability to create the mental state of flow and link together the flow in one's life is an important tool in becoming or being happy. The book is refreshingly free of both simple recipes and grand statements of morality: Csikszentmihalyi repeatedly stresses that there's no cookbook, that his goal is only to provide understanding and a framework, and that flow is a psychological state without any inherent morality and doesn't provide a moral direction or compass. One can achieve flow in activities that are morally repugnant; the psychology works the same way. (That was one of several points where Flow passed the smell test of useful science instead of pseudo-scientific fluff for me.)

Two aspects of the definition of flow stood out for me. The first was an analysis in terms of the number of inputs the brain is processing and the focus involved. Csikszentmihalyi recounts (with a different and, for me, more useful analysis) research on the number of things the brain can process at a time and points out the constant tradeoffs that we're making about what we're paying attention to out of the huge variety of possibilities. One key aspect of flow is that, while in flow, nearly all of the brain's available inputs are devoted to one activity. This is why the perception of time changes, discomfort goes unnoticed, and stray negative thoughts don't enter the mind. It's too busy to keep track of those things.

One passage particularly intrigued me because I've seen this effect in myself:

But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness — a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

I'm quoting somewhat out of context, so I should stress that it's not a matter of being alone or being in company, although it's easier to avoid this state of entropy when there's some available input, such as interesting conversation. Rather, it's a question of having a focus or not having a focus. Csikszentmihalyi argues that this is why we seek out activities that we call mindless; it's an easy way for anyone, even if they have no idea how to create focus or structure in their mind, to avoid entropic thought. Obviously, he considers flow an often better alternative than what he calls pleasurable, as opposed to happiness-creating, activities such as television. (One interesting point that he doesn't address directly, and about which I'm curious, is that flow requires more mental energy and effort. Pleasure, rather than flow, provides more of a mental break, which I think may also be needed.)

Flow is created by activities with a specific set of properties: they are challenging, require skill, have clear and immediate feedback (one knows whether one is doing the activity properly or not), and have well-defined success or failure metrics. That leads to the other aspect of flow I found fascinating: flow is a constant balancing act between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for the person's skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low. Csikszentmihalyi argues further that flow is a dynamic balance rather than a static balance since a properly constructed flow activity leads to increased skill, increased challenge, or more generally, increased complexity over time. Since one's skill doesn't remain static, repeating the same activity would fall into boredom; the flow reward pushes one towards harder challenges. Sports are extremely well-designed for producing flow, which Csikszentmihalyi believes may account for their very widespread appeal. I noticed immediately that video games are designed for flow in much the same way.

If Csikszentmihalyi has an agenda here, apart from presenting the flow theory, it's to push a vision of a rewarding life in which one strives for ever-increasing complexity and growth, and hence to push flow activities over non-flow activities. He particularly dislikes television because he believes it's a merely pleasurable way of distracting the brain from entropy without creating a challenge and feedback loop that could lead to flow. I think he's a little unfair; particularly good television shows can lead to a flow experience similar to reading, which gets high marks from the Experience Sampling Method and from interviews and studies as one of the happiest activities of many people's lives. However, any long-time reader is probably familiar with the argument that reading leaves more open for the brain to work with and react to, and Experience Sampling Method studies show a remarkably low level of happiness while watching television. (One fascinating related bit of research is that while most people say that they're unhappy at their jobs, ESM shows that people show some of their highest scores for feeling challenged and empowered while working. Csikszentmihalyi explains that with one of the major themes of the book: the subjectivity of happiness and the degree to which feeling happy or not happy may be under our control by disciplining how we label emotions in our minds.)

This is a book that I want to re-read. It's very readable and understandable, but there are so many ideas and new ways of thinking about one's thought processes that I need at least one more pass through it to understand all the details. Even at one reading, though, I've found it very useful in understanding why I'm sometimes productive and sometimes am not. Csikszentmihalyi's analysis of mental inputs was particularly useful, as is the concept of flow and the role attention plays in achieving it. He also provides one of the better frameworks for understanding meditation techniques and similar mental exercises that I've seen.

Flow is one of the rarest of books: an attempt to tackle happiness, concentration, and achievement that's research-based, grounded in psychology and observational data, and refreshingly free of mystical claptrap. Like all good research and good analysis of research, it isn't a house of cards: you can disagree with parts without undermining the foundation of the whole structure. I highly recommend it as a refreshing alternative and replacement for the endless series of pop psychology books that parade through the best-seller list.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-02-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21