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Book Summary:

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
HarperPerennial, 1990, New York, NY

Happiness Revisited - Chapter 1

Aristotle concluded that more than anything else people seek happiness. Most goals and activities we pursue - money, beauty - are because we believe that they will bring us happiness. The author, who has dedicated 25 years to the study of happiness, discovered that happiness "is not something that happens." It's not luck, good fortune, or outside events which determine happiness; rather it is how we interpret them. Hence happiness is related directly to how we control our inner lives.

Yet writes Csikszentmihalyi, "we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it." Or, as the Austrian psychologist, Viktor Frankl states - "Don't aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot by pursued; it must ensure....as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself." (p. 2)

The author notes that the first step one must take is to achieve control over one's consciousness, overcoming the common perception that our lives are shaped by forces beyond our control. He notes that everyone has "experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal experience (or flow)....Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments of our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times... The best moments occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile...in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery - or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life - that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine." (pp. 2-3)

The Anatomy of Consciousness - Chapter 2

The author makes the point that consciousness is the result of biological processes, but is not entirely determined by such programming since humans have developed the ability to override genetic instructions.

The Purpose of Consciousness - "is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body." (p. 24) However, it is noted that consciousness also shapes and filters what enters our consciousness, thus determining what we experience as our life. Our nervous system has definite limits on how much information it can store and use. Csikszentmihalyi believes that intentions are what order information in our consciousness, observing that they "act like magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others." (p. 27) Later he says, "It is attention that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available. It takes attention to retrieve the appropriate references from memory, to evaluate the event, and then to choose the right thing to do." (p. 31)

New information entering our consciousness either creates disorder, draining psychic energy, or frees up energy by reinforcing our goals or intentions. Disruptive information goes by many names - fear, anxiety, jealousy, pain. The opposite condition is the optimal, the flow experience, when information entering our consciousness is congruent with our goals. This type of experience frees up psychic energy. It is positive feedback.

Complexity and the Growth of the Self - "Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond oneself...The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled...Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered...when the flow episode is over, one feels more ‘together' than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and the world in general." (p. 41)

"A self that is only differentiated - not integrated - may attain great individual accomplishments, but risks being mired in self-centered egotism. By the same token, a person whose self is based exclusively on integration will be connected and secure, but lack autonomous individuality. Only when a person invests equal amounts of psychic energy in these two processes and avoids both selfishness and conformity is the self likely to reflect complexity." (p. 42)

Enjoyment and the Quality of Life - Chapter 3

"Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude...But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness." (p. 46)

When people explore more deeply what makes for a rewarding, satisfying life they begin to recall experiences that took them beyond what they thought they could have achieved, something new, something characterized by growth, something unimagined. These experiences fall in the category of enjoyment.

Elements and Conditions of Enjoyment - Csikszentmihalyi presents here the findings from his wide research studies on the elements of enjoyment, reporting that people from around the world, from all walks of life describe enjoyment in very similar ways and also identify a common set of underlying conditions that facilitate enjoyment. The seven elements or conditions are:

  1. A Challenging Activity That Requires Skill - Almost everyone describes flow experiences as involving a series of activities that are aimed at a specific and challenging goal, are bounded by rules, and could not be accomplished without the right skills. "Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's ability to act." (p. 52)

  2. The Merging of Action and Awareness - "When all a person's relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person's attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers...they (people) stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.. (p. 53)

  3. Clear Goals and Feedback - "The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that the goals are usually clear, and feedback immediate." (p. 54) Feedback varies given the nature of the goal or activity. Where goals are not clearly articulated in advance, as in some creative endeavors, an individual must have a strong "personal sense of what she intends to do."

  4. Concentration on the Task at Hand - "One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life. This feature of flow is an important by-product of the fact that enjoyable activities require a complete focusing of attention on the task at hand - thus leaving no room in the mind for irrelevant information." (p. 58)

  5. The Paradox of Control - "...the flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control - or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life." (p. 59) "...what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines." (p. 61)

  6. The Loss of Self-consciousness - "...when an activity is thoroughly engrossing....one item that disappears from awareness deserves special mention, because in normal life we spend so much time thinking about it: our own self". (p. 62) When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are." (p. 64)

  7. The Transformation of Time - "One of the most common descriptions of optimal experience is that time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does....freedom from the tyranny of time does add to the exhilaration we feel during a state of complete involvement." (pp. 66-67)

The Conditions of Flow - Chapter 4

"...(I)t is much more likely that flow will result either from a structured activity, or from an individual's ability to make flow occur, or both." (p. 71)

"When describing optimal experiences in this book, we have given as examples such activities as making music, rock climbing, dancing, sailing, chess, and so forth. What makes these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from the so-called "paramount reality" of everyday existence." (p. 72)

Growth - "In our studies, we found that every flow activity...had this in common: It 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...It is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them." (pp. 74-75)

Cultures as Channels - "Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience. They are adaptive responses, just as feathers are for birds and fur is for mammals. Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities: but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless actions within self-created boundaries. (p. 81)

It is in this respect that games provide a compelling analogy to cultures. Both consist of more or less arbitrary goals and rules that allow people to become involved in a process and act with a minimum of doubts and distractions. The difference is mainly one of scale. Cultures are all-embracing; they specify how a person should be born, how she should grow up, marry, have children and die. Games fill out the interludes of the cultural script." (p. 81)

Adversity - "When adversity threatens to paralyze us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction in which to invest psychic energy, a direction that lies outside the reach of external forces. When every aspiration is frustrated, a person still must seek a meaningful goal around which to organize the self. Then, even though that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free...But what makes some people able to achieve this internal control, while most others are swept away by external hardships? Richard Logan proposes an answer based on the writings of many survivors, including those of Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim, who have reflected on the source of strength under extreme adversity. He concludes that the most important trait of survivors is a "nonself-conscious individualism," or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. People who have that quality are bent on doing their best in all circumstances, yet are not concerned primarily with advancing their own interests." (p. 92)

The Body in Flow - Chapter 5

""A man possesses nothing certainly save a brief loan of his own body," wrote J. B. Cabell, "yet the body of man is capable of much curious pleasure." When we are unhappy, depressed, or bored we have an easy remedy at hand: to use the body for all it is worth. Most people nowadays are aware of the importance of health and physical fitness. But the almost unlimited potential for enjoyment that the body offers often remains unexploited. Few learn to move with the grace of an acrobat, see with the fresh eye of the artist, feel the joy of the athlete who breaks his own record, taste with the subtlety of a connoisseur, or love with a skill that lifts sex into a form of art. Because these opportunities are easily within reach, the easiest step toward improving the quality of life consists in simply learning to control the body and its senses." (p. 94)

"Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring." (p. 97)

Work as Flow - Chapter 7

In this chapter Csikszentmihalyi explores how to find flow in our work lives. He suggests that we design jobs from a flow perspective, using games as a model.

Jobs Designed as Games - "The more a job inherently resembles a game - with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback - the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker's level of development. Hunting, for example, is a good example of "work" that by its very nature had all the characteristics of flow. For hundreds of thousands of years chasing down game was the main productive activity in which humans were involved. Yet hunting has proven to be so enjoyable that many people are still doing it as a hobby, after all practical need for it has disappeared. The same is true of fishing." (p. 152)

However.... "it would be erroneous to expect that if all jobs were constructed like games, everyone would enjoy them. Even the most favorable external conditions do not guarantee that a person will be in the flow. Because optimal experience depends on a subjective evaluation of what the possibilities for action are, and of one's own capacities, it happens quite often that an individual will be discontented even with a potentially great job." (p. 154)

"To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary. On the one hand jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities - as do hunting, cottage weaving, and surgery. But it will also be necessary to help people develop autotelic personalities....by training them to recognize opportunities for action, to hone their skills, to set reachable goals." (p. 157)

The Paradox of Work - "In our studies we have often encountered a strange inner conflict in the way people relate to the way they make their living. One the one hand, our subjects usually report that they have had some of their most positive experiences while on the job. From this response it would follow that they would wish to be working, that their motivation on the job would be high. Instead, even when they feel good, people generally say that they would prefer not to be working, that their motivation on the job is low. The converse is also true: when supposedly enjoying their hard-earned leisure, people generally report surprisingly low moods; yet they keep on wishing for more leisure." (p. 158)

"What does this contradictory pattern mean?...one conclusion seems inevitable: when it comes to work, people do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible." (p. 160)

"Although, as we have seen, people generally long to leave their places of work and get home, ready to put their hard-earned free time to good use, all too often they have no idea what to do there. Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one's work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, personal interests, and especially inner discipline help make leisure what it is supposed to be - a chance for re-creation. But on the whole people miss this opportunity to enjoy leisure even more thoroughly than they do with working time. Over sixty years ago, the great American sociologist Robert Parker already noted: "It is in the improvident use of our leisure, I suspect, that the greatest wastes of American life occur." (p. 162)

"...instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes play in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bid at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere." (p. 162)

Enjoying Solitude and Other People - Chapter 8

Keys to Quality of Life - "Studies on flow have demonstrated repeatedly that more than anything else, the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people...We are biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world...If we learn to make our relations with others more like flow experiences, our quality of life as a whole is going to be much improved. On the other hand, we also value privacy and often wish to be left alone. Yet it frequently turns out that as soon as we are, we begin to grow depressed.... Yet unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration. For this reason, it is essential to find ways to control consciousness even when we are left to our own devices." (pp. 164-165)

The Pain of Loneliness - Why is solitude such a negative experience? Csikszentmihalyi explains that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. People need external goals, stimulation, and feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander... "When left alone, the typical teenager begins to wonder: ‘what is my girlfriend doing now? Am I getting zits?...Are those dudes I had a fight with yesterday going to beat me up?' In other words, with nothing to do, the mind is unable to prevent negative thoughts from elbowing their way to center stage....It is for this reason that television proves such a boon to so many people...More drastic ways of coping with the dread of solitude include regular use of drugs, or the recourse to obsessive practices, which may range from cleaning the house incessantly to compulsive sexual practices." (pp. 168-169)

"The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does in solitude, with no external demands to give structure to attention...To fill free time with activities that require concentration, that increase skills, that lead to a development of the self, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking recreational drugs." (p. 171)

Flow and the Family - "Because the family is our first and in many ways our most important social environment, quality of life depends to a large extent on how well a person succeeds in making the interaction with his of her relatives enjoyable...It is clear that the family can make one very happy, or be an unbearable burden. Which one it will be depends, to a great extent, on how much psychic energy family members invest in the mutual relationship, and especially in each other's goals...Every relationship requires a reorienting of attention, a repositioning of goals...If a person is unwilling to adjust personal goals when starting a relationship, then a lot of what subsequently happens in that relationship will produce disorder in the person's consciousness, because novel patterns of interaction will conflict with old patterns of expectation." (p. 177)

"To provide flow, a family has to have a goal for its existence...Positive goals are necessary to focus the psychic energy of parents and children on common tasks. Some of these goals might be very general and long-term, such as planning a particular life-style - to build an ideal home, to provide the best possible education for the children...For such goals to result in interaction that will help increase the complexity of its members, the family must be both differentiated and integrated. Differentiation means that each person is encouraged to develop his or her unique traits, maximize personal skills, set individual goals. Integration, in contrast, guarantees that what happens to one person will affect all others. If a child is proud of what she accomplished in school, the rest of the family will pay attention and will be proud of her, too. If the mother is tired and depressed, the family will try to help and cheer her up. In an integrated family, each person's goals matter to all others." (p. 180)

Cheating Chaos - Chapter 9

"How is it possible that people are able to achieve harmony of mind, and grow in complexity, even when some of the worst things imaginable happen to them?...It would be naively idealistic to claim that no matter what happens to him, a person in control of consciousness will be happy. There are certainly limits to how much pain, or hunger, or deprivation a body can stand. Yet it is also true, as Dr. Franz Alexander has so well stated: "The fact that the mind rules the body is, in spite of its neglect by biology and medicine, the most fundamental fact which we know about the process of life."....The relevant point to be made here is that a person who knows how to find flow from life is able to enjoy even situations that seem to allow only despair." (p.193)

"It is for this reason that courage, resilience, perseverance, mature defense, or transformational coping - the dissipative structures of the mind (meaning taking neutral or destructive events and turning them into positive ones, as in nature, harnessing energy which would otherwise be lost in random motion - ala Ilya Prigogine) - are so essential. Without them we would be constantly suffering through the random bombardment of stray psychological meteorites. On the other hand, if we do develop such positive strategies, most negative events can be at least neutralized, and possibly even be used as challenges that will make the self stronger and more complex." (p. 202)

"Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal. There are three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance - People who "do not doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously." (p. 203)

  2. Focusing attention on the world - People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves...Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person's goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish." (pp. 204-205)

  3. The discovery of new solutions - "There are basically two ways to cope with a situation that creates psychic entropy. One is to focus attention on the obstacles to achieving one's goals and then to move them out of the way, thereby restoring harmony in consciousness....The other is to focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible....if one operates with unselfconscious assurance, and remains open to the environment and involved in it, a solution is likely to emerge." (pp. 207-208)

The Autotelic Self - "The autotelic self is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self. The term literally means "a self that has self-contained goals," and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self...the rules for developing such a self are simple, and they derive directly from the flow model:

  1. Setting goals - "To be able to experience flow, one must have clear goals to strive for...As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it....And to develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one's actions - to monitor the feedback." (pp. 209-210)

  2. Becoming immersed in the activity -" After choosing a system of action, a person with an autotelic personality grows deeply involved with whatever he is doing...To do so successfully one just learns to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses." (p. 210)

  3. Paying attention to what is happening -" Concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention." (p. 211)

  4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience - "The outcome of having an autotelic self...is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty. Being in control of mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy." (pp. 212-213)

"But to change all existence into a flow experience, it is not sufficient to learn merely how to control moment-by-moment states of consciousness. It is also necessary to have an overall context of goals for the events of everyday life to make sense...To create harmony in whatever one does is the last task that the flow theory presents to whose who wish to attain optimal experience; it is a task that involves transforming the entirety of life into a single flow activity, with unified goals that provide constant purpose." (p. 213)

The Making of Meaning - Chapter 10

In the concluding chapter Csikszentmihalyi examines how to turn all of life into a flow experience by uncovering an important, challenging life goal that is integrating in nature. He then proposes where to look for such a goal.

Meaning and Life - "If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and 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." (pp. 214-215)

"Throughout human history innumerable attempts have been made to discover ultimate goals that would give meaning to experience...Ultimate goals, in Arendt's (Hannah Arendt, a social philosopher) opinion, must accommodate the issue of mortality: they must give men and women a purpose that extends beyond the grave." (p. 218)

"When a person's psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony. But not all life themes are equally productive." (p. 230)

A Worthy Life Goal - "And the evolutionary perspective also points to a goal worthy of our energies. There seems to be no question about the fact that over the billions of years of activity on the earth, more and more complex life forms have made their appearance, culminating in the intricacies of the human nervous system. In turn, cerebral cortex has evolved consciousness, which now envelops the earth as thoroughly as the atmosphere does. The reality of complexification is both an is and ought: it has happened - given the conditions ruling the earth, it was bound to happen - but it might not continue unless we wish it to go on. The future of evolution is now in our hands.

In the past few thousand years - a mere split second in evolutionary time - humanity has achieved incredible advances in differentiation of consciousness. We have developed a realization that mankind is separate from other forms of life. We have conceived of individual human beings as separate from one another. We have invented abstraction and analysis - the ability to separate dimensions of objects and processes from each other, such as the velocity of a falling object from its weight and its mass. It is this differentiation that has produced science, technology, and the unprecedented power of mankind to build up and to destroy its environment.

But complexity consists of integration as well as differentiation. The task of the next decades and centuries is to realize this under-developed component of the mind. Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and from the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with the other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality. The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account. Recognizing the limitations of human will, accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, we should feel the relief of the exile who is finally returning home. The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual's purpose merges with the universal flow." (pp. 239-240)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is also the author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, HarperPerennial, 1996, New York, NY.

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