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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The results of a survey given to the most successful athletes showed that the peak of happiness was not reached when they achieved their goals, but instead when they were in the process of achieving them. In other words, we are most happy when we are fully immersed in an activity that leads to a very important and meaningful goal. The process gives us more happiness than the result itself. 

Summary Notes

Chapter 1: Happiness Revisited

Since the time of Aristotle, the world has changed significantly. We have electricity, a good healthcare system, TV, and many luxuries that have improved the quality of life. Yet people often feel that their life is wasted. Instead of feeling happiness, their life is filled with anxiety and boredom.

Science has discovered that our happiness is not influenced very much by the level of luxury in our lives. When scientists analyzed the happiness level of many people such as artists and athletes, they discovered that people feel most happy while they are having an optimal experience. Optimal experience is what the sailor feels as the wind whips through her hair, and the boat lunges through the waves like a colt.

Moments like this are the best moments in our lives. They are not relaxing, passive times. Instead, they occur when we stretch our body or mind to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

The state of flow is when you are so involved in an activity that nothing else matters. The experience is so great that people will do it, even at great cost, just for the sake of doing it.

Skills to acquire

Chapter 2: The Anatomy of Consciousness

The battle is not really against the self, but against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness.

Your quality of life depends on your ability to control your attention. Your attention can be invested in many ways, and this investment can make your life great or miserable. Attention determines what will and will not appear in consciousness. Think of attention as psychic energy—without this energy, nothing can be done. We can use it to accomplish the things we want. We create ourselves through our investment of this energy.

Things that are happening, outside and inside, are very chaotic. We are trying to structure our life events to create order. When everything seems to be in order, and all the information that our conscious mind is processing is congruent with our goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. In this state, there is no need to worry. We are in a state of flow.

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Chapter 3: Enjoyment and the Quality of Life

Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make.

Most people tend to think that happiness is what they see on TV. It is what beautiful and happy people do—vacation on tropical islands, drive fast cars, and so on. If your mind is focused on this version of happiness, it’s occupied with worrying about how to achieve these material things. This worrying is the opposite of happiness.

It is more beneficial to find out how our everyday lives can become more harmonious and satisfying. This can help us achieve things that cannot be reached through the pursuit of symbolic goals.

The pursuit of pleasure is an important element of quality of life, like eating, sleeping, and resting. Pleasure helps to maintain order; however, it cannot create a new order in our consciousness by itself. That’s why the pursuit of pleasure does not feel very rewarding.

Experiences can give you two things: pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure feels good, but it’s not rewarding. Enjoyment, on the other hand, is a different sensation.

People naturally get huge enjoyment from growing and developing. This can be observed in children. However, due to the education system that forces us to learn things we don’t need, this enjoyment of growth and development usually disappears over time. However, the feeling of growth is one of the most important elements of flow.

An element of flow that is very important is having clear goals with immediate feedback. This means that we constantly receive information, and we can correct our course to attain the goal. Almost any type of feedback can be enjoyable, as long as it’s logically related to the goal in which one has invested psychic energy.

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Chapter 4: The Conditions of Flow

In Csikszentmihalyi’s studies, every flow activity had the following things in common:

- It provided a sense of discovery.

- It pushed the person to higher levels of performance.

- It led to a better state of consciousness.

The key to flow activities lies in the growth of the self.

We can get in the flow when our skill level matches the challenge we are facing. If the activity is too difficult for our skills, then we became anxious. If the activity is not challenging enough, then we become bored. The flow occurs only when we have a feeling of growth, and this is possible only when the activity is challenging us.

There are some obstacles that can prevent you from getting into the flow, such as excessive self-consciousness. If you constantly worry about how others will perceive you or that you will do something inappropriate, you will not enjoy the activity. Therefore, you cannot get into the flow.

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Chapter 5: The Body in Flow

[Walking] can be profoundly enjoyable if a person sets goals and takes control of the process.

Everything the body can do can be enjoyable. Each motor function and each sensory organ can be used to get us into the flow. The body does not do it by itself, the mind must be involved to gain the feeling of control, growth, and the other elements of flow.

Another surprising activity that can cause flow is talking to people. There are times that we get very involved in a conversation and time flows much faster.

Other activities that use different senses include looking at art, listening to music, or tasting food. Each of these activities can get you into the flow, but only if all the conditions are met.

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Chapter 6: The Flow of Thought

To experience the flow, you don’t need to do any physical activity. It is possible to experience flow only in the mind. There are various ways to do so including games (like chess), playing with words, and inventing things. In fact, many inventions happened not because there was a group of highly educated scientists working together, but because there was a very passionate individual pushing his mind into the unknown.

It’s important to notice that the feeling of personal growth and accomplishment is one of the best motivators to keep doing an activity. Yet, our school system is based on extrinsic motivation. It pushes us to do things we don't enjoy, and at the same time, it kills our motivation to grow independently.

For athletes, for example, it’s not just the physical well-being that is motivating them to exercise so intensely. Instead, it’s a sense of personal accomplishment and increased feelings of self-esteem.

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Chapter 7: Work as Flow

The more that work has elements such as variety, a challenge for the worker, a clear goal, and immediate feedback, the more enjoyable it will be, regardless of the worker’s level of development.

Before the agrarian revolution, when people were hunter-gatherers, they deeply enjoyed their work. This work contained all the elements to be in the flow. They also did not work very long, probably an average of about three hours per day. Later, in the pre-industrial era, there is strong evidence that people enjoyed their work as well. But everything changed during the Industrial Revolution. All of a sudden, people were forced to work very hard and very long hours. This killed the pleasure of working.

Now, in the post-industrial era, most of the jobs are enjoyable again. However, they are often not as enjoyable as they used to be. We do not produce goods with our hands; we operate machines that produce them for us. Usually, this does not give the same level of satisfaction.

There are many autotelic jobs—jobs that give deep satisfaction because they have all the elements to get us into the flow. Some of the best are surgeons or artists.

There was a study of 4,800 people, in which the participants were asked to write down how they feel during random times of the day. The results are very interesting. During work hours, 52% of people were in the flow, while only 18% were during leisure time.

When asked if they would prefer to be doing something else, more people at work preferred to be somewhere else in comparison to people engaging in leisure activities. This means that even though work gives us more experience, we prefer to spend our time resting. The best explanation is that people think, due to cultural pressure, that work is necessary but not very enjoyable.

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Chapter 8: Enjoying Solitude and Other People

The quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.

People are happier when they are with other people, especially with friends or family. The worst moods are reported when people are alone and have nothing that needs to be done. Watching TV or working are not very related to happiness.

When there is nothing to do, and there is no one around, we are unable to prevent negative thoughts. Our mind begins wondering, “What is my girlfriend doing now? Am I getting acne?” and so on.

A good measure of our ability to control the quality of our experience is when we are left alone and have no work to complete. Do we fill our time with activities that require concentration? Activities that make us grow? Do we develop ourselves? If yes, then we have passed the test for achieving a creative life.

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Chapter 9: Cheating Chaos

Life has a lot of random situations that sometimes turn into chaos; people become disabled or encounter other life tragedies. Many of us encounter some very difficult life situations throughout our lives. These situations can be very difficult to get through.

And yet, despite this tragedy, some people move forward. They achieve great things and have joy in life. Then, there is a second group that struggles a lot. What’s the difference?

There are three resources that help to cope with stress:

1. The availability of external support (especially some specialists)

2. Psychological resources such as education, intelligence, etc.

3. And strategies

The goal of these strategies is to take the misfortune and turn it into something positive.

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Chapter 10: The Making of Meaning

The meaning of life has been one of the most popular topics of philosophical discussion for centuries. What is the real meaning? When purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and then transform it into a seamless flow experience, the meaning of life is found. Anyone who experiences this flow will feel fulfilled and will not lack anything.

Purpose

How can one attain this state? The simplest model has four stages for the emergence of meaning along a gradient of complexity. Those are:

1. Self-interest

2. The welfare of the family, the company, the community, or the nation

3. Reflective individualism

4. Unity with universal values

These stages show what can happen if a person succeeds in controlling their consciousness.

Resolution

You can’t achieve your goals until you take them seriously. Each goal comes with consequences, and if you are not prepared to reckon with them, the goal becomes meaningless.

In our complex culture, there are too many goals competing for prominence. It’s difficult to achieve a degree of total resolve. There are too many things you can do, and too many people you can become. Also, there is a risk that we will chase meaningless goals due to the desire to live the life of rich people.

To achieve full resolve, we must commit to one meaningful goal and become fully dedicated to it. On the way, action and reflection should complete each other. Taking action is easy, but action without reflection is blind. Getting into the habit of reflection is crucial to decide whether your course of action is entropic or not.

Harmony

We achieve a sense of harmony by chasing meaningful goals. These are goals that we would chase despite any obstacles towards achieving them. When we chase such goals, we feel a sense of order.

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