on February 2, 2009
Besides having more vowels in his name than any other researcher in the field of positive psychology, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is probably best known for his book "Flow". So what exactly is flow?
Well, there are short and long ways to define the concept of flow. The short way is to tell you that flow is roughly the equivalent to what most people refer to as being "in the zone" or "in the groove". More elaborate definitions might be that it is "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 do it even at great cost, for the sheer state of doing it."
Being such a desirable state, flow is naturally linked to happiness. The book feels that the path to happiness is a circuitous one that begins with one achieving control over the "contents of our consciousness". I'm taking that to mean that if I learn to find flow experiences, it will lead to greater happiness.
Know from the get-go that "Flow" is NOT a step-by-step book that gives you tips on how to be happy. Instead, the book summarizes years of research, so what you get when all is said and done, are general principles along with examples of how people have used them to transform their lives. The hope, then, is that you will have enough information in the book to make the transition from principles and theory, to actual practice.
In a nutshell, "Flow" is a unique and interesting book that examines the process of achieving happiness through the control of one's inner life and is a classic in it's field. Other positive psychology books I liked include "Finding Happiness in a Frustrating World".
If anyone is seeking a "recipe" for "optimal experience" do not read this book. This book is not a step-by-step self-help guide. Neither is it a pedantic overview of psychological studies replete with statistical analyses, i.e., hard data, proving "flow" exists. The simplest way to summarize this book is, it describes how different people create meaning in life with full intention and focus and thereby achieve an ongoing state of satisfaction and sense of fulfillment.
The book begins with an overview of how people define and achieve happiness. Essentially, the author contends, most people are not happy because the universe was not created to make us happy but on the contrary, it serves to frustrate us and help us grow ... The primary focus of this book is to show us that "flow" states happen to people despite the challenges of the universe, it happens to people from all walks of life, from all cultures, throughout the world.
Flow is a state of consciousness which can be achieved on an individual path. It also has common elements which anyone who is experiencing the state can identify. The author examines the common experiences which people who are in a state of "flow" describe. It seems people who are in "flow" achieve a state of consciousness that is in harmony with their surroundings and feelings. They do not make distinctions between work and play ... people in "flow" create an inner state of being that brings them peace and fulfillment that is separate from their external environment. They are focused, what they do is meaningful and has purpose, they are absorbed in their activities and they have a sense of connection to their inner self and and also with others. The state called "flow" pertains to enjoyment and satisfaction with one's quality of life. The basis for the flow experience seems to be creating meaning and controlling consciousness where a state of unity exists which is consistent with a person's life themes. Some people experience it for minutes, some for hours, some for days on end ... evidently it can be sustained for long periods of time by some people. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the "psychology of being alive here and now."
Erika Borsos (erikab93)
on January 1, 2009
Flow are those inexplicable moments of indescribable happiness that we experience at rare intervals, when we are "surprised by joy." These precious moments seem to be gifts, almost accidental peak experiences in which life seems rich with meaning, joy and wonder. When and why do these magic episodes intrude upon our humdrum existences? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's answer may surprise you: "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 of our lives usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary moment to achieve something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen ... For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves."
Csikszentmihalyi's theme is happiness. This philosopher-psychologist points out the Aristotelian concept that all other things we seek, riches, fame, power, etc. are valued only because we believe they will make us happy. Based upon decades of research on the mystery of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi defines it as moments of self-forgetfulness when we are totally absorbed in the process of life ... intervals of peak creativity and self-expression. He expands upon the research of Abraham Maslow and agrees that peak experiences are within the reach of us all. The theme of this book is the introduction of techniques to make this glad to be alive feeling occur more often. It may be stated that this book is no self-help step-by-step program, nor could it be. Each of us is plowing new snow, creating a path that no one else has traveled. The guidelines and the principles are here, but the journey into the sublime uncertainty of our destiny is individual and precious. Flow is one of several extraordinary contributions by this great mind.
on January 12, 2010
Amazon already did a good job summarizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, so I will instead focus on evaluating its content.
The book is set up in a way where the first few chapters concentrate on defining and analyzing the intricate relationship between human consciousness and happiness. Once this is firmly established, Csikszentmihalyi goes on to introduce the concept of flow, its physiology and its conditions. All subsequent chapters then examine flow in various aspects of our lives and the last chapter focuses on the philosophical implications of the concept and whether it relates to finding "meaning in life".
It has been said in science that any researcher should have the ability to explain their theory clearly and concisely to a layman. I felt that Csikszentmihalyi's style of writing is very true to this statement, as he puts in a particular effort to make his book accessible and very easy to read for just about anyone. I would even say that he is overly simple to a fault - using a philosophically-conversational tone at the expense of a slightly more rigid "literature review" style that predominates more modern pop sci books. Despite this, the author is still capable of conveying a decent amount of science and methodology behind his discovery and analysis of the optimal experience model.
To me, the most powerful chapters were really the first five where, as I discussed earlier, Csikszentmihalyi really puts the meat on the bones of his theory of flow and masterfully connects everything together. Some passages just made so much sense that I had to put the book down and seriously contemplate about what is being said and how it relates to my entire understanding of life. To use the author's own language it put me in a very deep and enjoyable "flow of thought".
The book does have a small blemish in the fact that it gets a bit repetitive when it goes into listing the occurrence of flow in everyday settings. I don't have anything against the discussion of applicability of the theory, it just seems that sections containing very similar messages could have been condensed. Perhaps 240 pages (not including notes and references) is a bit much for this type of format and ideally it should have been closer to 200 pages. However, I want to emphasize that this small fault does not in any way make the book a "drag" and some people may find this "extra" information rather useful.
To conclude, I found Csikszentmihalyi's lifelong research, his findings and the overall message of his work extremely compelling and powerful. The theory of flow does an excellent job describing many aspects of our lives and most importantly sheds light on the conditions of happy and meaningful existence. I would honestly recommend this book to anyone. It is rather short and very readable and guaranteed to make you analyze your life and the life of your friends and family through the lens of the theory of flow.
First, the name is pronounced chick-sent-mih-high. And it is worth remembering because this is one book that will probably be around in 100 or 200 years. It is that important. Certainly, it is one of, if not the most important books in the positive psychology field. The author has spent his life researching the Flow state, and in the process, has inspired hundreds, if not thousands of other researchers to further pursue this profound, yet simple concept.
Flow is a state that artists experience when they are feeling in the groove, when time seems to just fly and the "work" seems to soar.
One key ingredient of flow is a challenge that can be reasonably responded to with existing resources. That tells us that it is important, if we are going to achieve Flow States, to challenge ourselves regularly.
The book walks the reader through some of the basic research and then, to conclusions about how this amazing concept affects us all, and how it affects people who insist on finding the flow in their lives.
I discovered MC's work about 12 years ago, and while working on a book titled THE HAPPINESS RESPONSE, had my first conversation with him. He's one man who walks the talk-- kind, accessible. His book opens a door to a new way of thinking about living, about psychology, and it has had a major role in the development of the field of positive psychology. Matter of fact, if you are interested in positive psychology you absolutely must have this book.
If you want to get a handle on some concrete aspects of finding more meaning in your life, on specific strategies for feeling more alive, then read this book.
In my lectures and workshops, I present the Anatomy of Positive Experience. One key element is the optimization of the moment-- Once you realize you are having a positive experience, there are many strategies you can use to make the experience longer, stronger, deeper, more meaningful, shared with someone you love, etc. This book gives you many specific ideas on how to do just these things.
In the annual meeting I organize, The Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology Meeting, it is common for trainers and researchers to describe how winners stay in the moment to perform their best. Flow is about the same phenomenon. But not just about winning, it's also about the little moments too.
You don't have to paint a masterpiece or climb a mountain to find flow. Just stretch a little. And this book and MC's other works help you learn HOW to stretch so you feel the FLOW. This is one of those books I've recommended to hundreds of people. Try it. You won't go wrong.
on November 3, 2000
The publications and blather out there are endless! The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Personal Power, First Things First (duh!) are great feel good books, but what does one really get out of them? Well, after reading them, one supposedly knows what successful people do, what to do first, or maybe have an increased sense of personal power. Somehow, I don't think so.
Enter Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the idea of Flow. Flow is about finding meaning in a particular activity, profession or if one is really fortunate in life. The bottom line is that to achieve maximum happiness, enjoyment, or even "success" a person will often have "flow" experiences. It's when worries slip away, when a person or a team is engaged in an activity, and is so focused that it seems effortless.
Covey, Robbins, and the rest of em', will present you with a square peg which you may be able to smash into a round hole if you keep hitting it hard enough. Understanding, yourself and what brings you satisfaction in life must come before following any prescribed method for improvement or success. If you love what you do, and do what you love, you don't need some guru to give you the steps to success.
Flow can help you find and understand that. You've got to start with the basics, and this book can provide insight on what flow is, what conditions facilitate it, how to achieve it, and where to start. Highly recommended!
on December 6, 2000
Flow is a concept Csikszentmihalyi developed to describe his observations of human's happiest states. Flow he says is more or less being heavily involved in an activity - be it work, a hobby, sex, music etc. - in which you've tuned out to everything else. I saw this as sort of zen-like living in the present through immersion in an action.
I immediately identified with this concept, and he did an excellent job of showing the connection between flow and happiness in all areas of life. This is a very clear writer with an easy style. However I was left feeling that I can now identify past flow experiences I've had but can't exactly find in this book the key to increasing either the frequency or quality of those experiences in the future. That seems to be the trick. But maybe true happiness doesn't come easily.
I would certainly recommend this to any thoughtful reader.
on April 11, 2004
This seems to be the kind of book that either you love or you hate. I loved it. This is why:
It made sense to me. It helped me understand things about myself that I didn't realize, and it made a difference. Why do I sit and watch TV when I hate TV and there are a thousand better things to do? Why do I choose an activity knowing at the time I will regret it later (such as reading a not-great book I've already read, instead of going for a walk or reading one of the great, challenging books on my shelf I haven't read)? Why do I have so much trouble starting a project I'm really excited about? Why when I'm doing a routine task like laundry do I start obsessing about past conversations and what I should have said? I thought it was a character issue - I just don't have enough willpower.
What I understood from this book, the mind needs structure for keeping pyschic order (This is the interepretation that made a difference to me - it may not be a scientifically rigorous representation of his work). There are two kinds of structure - low level, meaning low challenge and low use of skills. It doesn't take any psychic energy to get there, but it doesn't provide much growth either. Examples are watching TV, reading predictable, unchallenging books, redundant social chatter, etc. Higher level structure means higher challenges and higher use of skills. Examples playing tennis, brain surgery, model building, drag racing, challenging, thinking conversations or books, basketball, pretty much any work or hobby you enjoy. It takes some energy or effort to get started, but you get so much more out of it, and generally feel better afterward. With no structure, the mind tends to wander and get caught by problems or concerns.
In moments throughout the day, having this distinction had made a difference. Knowing that the pull to do something mindless and easy is not a character issue, but the mind's need for order, I find myself choosing more challenging activities sometimes. I'm not sure I've experienced what he calls flow, but I know I feel better if I put forth the energy to do a jigsaw puzzle rather than watch TV, or take a walk rather than eat a pint of ice cream, or work on my writing instead of reading a book.
I found the follow-up book, "Finding Flow", less satisfying because it was less dense and more chatty, and it was mostly a repeat of "Flow". If you are interested in the ideas but want something less scientific and easier to read, you might start with that.
on April 16, 1998
For me, this book provided my first insight into how people really become happy. We're happy when we are in flow. Unlike many of the "happy psychology" books that are available, this one feels true. It's also backed up by real research; the author is not a pop psychology dude but a real researcher. (I understand from the university psych community that M.C.'s work may not be universally admired, but that may simply be because it is approachable and understandable by your average educated person.)
It's rare to find a book that agrees with both what I think and what I feel. For anyone who wants to have new insights into what makes us feel happy (and who doesn't?), I highly recommend this book.
Additionally, I recommend his latest book, Creativity. I would skip much of his second popular book, Finding Flow, which gets into a lot of metaphysical stuff that doesn't agree with either how I feel or how I think. Flow, however, is the key to understanding the rest of his work.
on September 17, 1999
When I read the characteristics of "optimal experience" or "flow" (see p. 71), I found myself saying "Yes! That's it!" I had never had a concise description of those experiences in life that practically give meaning to our existence.
As a developer of online environments (MOOs) for language learning, I have had to describe to educators in presentations and published articles just what it is that makes a low-level learner of Spanish stay hooked to the Internet for *hours* while chatting away in a foreign language, and why that experience was so highly motivating that these students were neglecting other studies (in favor of a foreign language??!!) or even missing Spanish class. I have quoted Csikszentmihalyi many times because his is the best description of that experience. The students were "in flow" - the experience had just the right balance of stress (they might not understand me if I don't communicate clearly) and pleasure (I'm enjoying getting to know this person!) to make it highly motivating.
He says on p. 74: "In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality." And that is precisely what was happening to my students when they got involved in using MOO (Multi-user-domain, Object-Oriented) for language learning. They were able to create and "live" in a new reality - but all in Spanish!
I suspect that some of the readers of this book either have not had many flow experiences, or have not recognized them as such when they were having them. This book clarifies what they are and thus, bringing this understanding to consciousness, makes it easier to replicate them and increase the time spent in moments of happiness.