Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –

P. ix “This book summarizes…decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life that I call flow.

a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.

…this book presents general principles…to transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment.”

P. 1 “Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness.”… “We do not understand what happiness is any better than Aristotle did… people often end up feeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.”

P. 2 “The intent of this book is to use some of the tools of modern psychology to explore this very ancient question: When do people feel most happy?”

“What I ‘discovered’ was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”

Quoting Victor Frankl, “…success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

P.3 “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. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

P. 4 “Getting control of life is never easy and sometimes it can definitely be painful. But 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.”

“Flow is that state in which people are so involved in any activity that nothing else seems to matter.”

P. 5 “What would really satisfy people is not getting slim or rich, but feeling good about their lives.

“However well intentioned, books cannot give recipes for how to be happy…each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity.”

P. 6 “Without some intellectual effort, a commitment to reflect and think hard about your own experience, you will not gain much from this book.”

“The optimal state of inner experience…happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action…Periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives.”

P. 7 “It is crucial that one learn to transform jobs into flow-producing activities and to think of ways of making relationships more enjoyable.” “The way to achieve these goals is relatively easy in theory, yet quite difficult in practice.”

“Obstacles…are implicit in the human condition…Frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of life…Chronic dissatisfaction is an obstacle that stands in the way of contentment.”

P. 8 “Only the direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.”

P. 9 “Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on controls we are able to exert over the great (or lesser) forces of the universe.”

“Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives. If it remains beyond reach, we grow resentful or resigned; if it is at least in part achieved, we experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction.”

P. 10 “…there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure form the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.”

P. 11 “…the pervasive listlessness that affects so many lives. Genuine happy individuals are few and far between… (there is a) general malaise.”

P. 12 “The roots of discontent are internal, and each person must untangle them personally.”

“(There is) an increasingly nagging question: ‘Is this all there is?’… Behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better.”

P. 13 “…it becomes clearer that money, power, status, and possessions do not, by themselves, necessarily add one iota to the quality of life.”

P. 14 “Religions are only temporarily successful attempts to cope with the lack of meaning in life; they are not permanent…Those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

P. 16 “…while humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousand fold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience. There is no way out of this predicament except for an individual to take things in hand personally.

THE major question for all of us: “Given that we are who we are, with whatever hang-ups and repressions, what can we do to improve our future?

“…a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances… This requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare.”

“And before all else, achieving control over experience (often) requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.”

P. 19 “The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment… Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces… We must…learn to take charge of what happens in the mind.”

P. 20 “The simple truth – that the control of consciousness determines the quality of life… The oracle’s advice in ancient Delphi: ‘Know thyself’”.

P. 23 “…those who take the trouble to gain mastery over what happens in consciousness do live a happier life.”

P. 24 “A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside’, just by changing the contents of consciousness… This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.” (e.g. Victor Frankl)

P. 25 “…the mind has enormous untapped potential that we desperately need to learn how to use.”

P. 26 “We might think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information.” P. 28 “…consciousness can be ordered in terms of different goals and intentions. Each of us has the freedom to control our subjective reality.”

P. 30 “…an individual can experience only so much. Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.”

P. 31 “The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”

P. 33 “…psychic energy…We create ourselves by how we invest this energy…Attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

P. 35 “We have seen that experience depends on the way we invest psychic energy – on the structure of attention. This, in turn, is related to goals and intentions. These processes are connected to each other by the self, or the dynamic mental representation we have of the entire system of our goals. These are the pieces that must be maneuvered if we wish to improve things.”

P. 42 “When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again.

P. 43 “Two main strategies…to improve the quality of life: 1) try making external conditions match our goals and 2) change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.”

P. 44 “…the quality of life does not depend directly on what others think of us or on what we own. The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quality of experience.

“In general there is (only) mild correlation between wealth and well-being.”

P. 46 “Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness.” “…enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investment of attention.”

P. 48 “To gain personal control over the quality of experience, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.”

P. 49 – 67 “The phenomenology of enjoyment” has 8 major components

  1. A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills
  2. Merging of Action and Awareness
  3. Clear Goals
  4. Clear Feedback
  5. High Level of Concentration on the Task at Hand: Focus
  6. The Paradox of Control – lacking the sense of worry about losing control
  7. Loss of Self-Consciousness — little opportunity for the self to be threatened
  8. Time is Transformed – time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does

P. 70 “The flow experience…is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.”

We must constantly reevaluate what we do, lest habits and past wisdom blind us to new possibilities.”

P. 72 “…experience can be shaped to improve the quality of life.”

P. 74 “…every flow activity…transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”

P. 75 “It is not skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have.

P. 80/1 “…both Thomas Jefferson and Chairman Mao Zedong believed that each generation needed to make its own revolution.” “Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience.” “Culture can enhance flow.”

P. 83 “We need to know how to control consciousness – a skill that most people have not learned to cultivate. Surrounded by an almost astounding panoply of recreational gadgets and leisure choices, most of us go on being bored and vaguely frustrated. This fact brings us to the second condition that affects whether an optimal experience will occur or not: an individual’s ability to restructure consciousness so as to make flow possible. Some people enjoy themselves wherever they are, while others stay bored even when confronted with the most dazzling prospects.”

P. 88 “The association between the ability to concentrate and flow is clear.”

“The family context promoting optimal experience has five characteristics: clarity, centering, choice, commitment and challenge.”

P. 94/5 “…the easiest step toward improving the quality of life consists in simply learning to control the body and its senses… Everything the body can do is potentially enjoyable…physical activity contributes to optimal experience.”

P. 98/9 “Walking is the most trivial physical activity imaginable, yet it can be profoundly enjoyable if a person sets goals and takes control of the process… enjoyment does not depend on what you do, but rather on how you do it” (and how you think about it).

P. 103 “We can look toward Eastern religions for guidance in how to achieve control over consciousness.”

P. 105/6 “The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong…made possible by a discipline of the body. Yoga is one of the oldest and most systematic methods of producing the flow experience.

P. 107 “Visual skills can provide constant access to enjoyable experiences…the pleasure we can derive from just watching nature.”

P. 117 “…wonder – which is the seed of knowledge – is the reflection of the purest form of pleasure. Reading is currently perhaps the most often mentioned flow activity around the world.”

P. 119 “…the normal state of the mind is chaos.”

P. 127 “…playing with ideas is extremely exhilarating.”

P. 129 “…it could be argued that the main function of conversation is not to get things accomplished, but to improve the quality of experience.”

P. 132/3 “Observing, recording, and preserving the memory of both the large and small events of life is one of the oldest and most satisfying ways to bring order to consciousness…Having a record of the past can make a great contribution to the quality of life.”

P. 142 “…the goal of studying… is to understand what is happening around one, to develop a personally meaningful sense of what one’s experience is all about. From that will come the profound joy of the thinker.”

P. 144 “…if one finds flow in work, and in relations with other people, one is well on the way toward improving the quality of life as a whole.”

P. 149 “…enjoyment depends on increasing complexity.”

P. 160 “…’dissatisfaction’ is a relative term.”

P. 162 “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.”

“…the underlying emptiness of wasted time…The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere.”

P. 163 “Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing… People who learn to enjoy their work, who do not waste their time, end up feeling that their lives as a whole have become much more worthwhile.”

P. 164/5 “…the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work and our relations with other people.” “Only in the company of other people do we feel complete.”

P. 167/8 “Because we depend so much on the affection and approval of others, we are extremely vulnerable to how we are treated by them.” “Companionship is so indispensable to well-being.”

“Most people feel a nearly intolerable sense of emptiness when they are alone, especially with nothing specific to do.”

P. 171 “A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life.”

P. 179 “Cicero: accepting limitations is liberating.”

P. 180 “In addition to long-term goals, it is imperative to have a constant supply of short-term objectives.”

P. 186 “…people report the most positive moods overall when they are with friends.”

p. 203 “The knowledge that one’s sufferings are shared adds an important perspective to the egocentrism of youth.”

“The peak in the development of coping skills is reached when a young man or woman has achieved a strong enough sense of self, based on personally selected goals, that no external disappointment can entirely undermine who he or she is.”

P. 204 “Paradoxically, this sense of humility…is a hallmark of strong people.”

“People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves.”

P. 207/8 “Almost every situation we encounter in life presents possibilities for growth.”

“Transformations require that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities…(but) we will never become aware of other possibilities unless…we pay attention to what is happening around us, and evaluate events on the basis of their direct impact on how we feel.”

P 209/10 “As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it.” Rules for developing the ‘autotelic self’ (one who easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges and therefore maintains an inner harmony):

  1. Set goals
  2. Become immersed in the activity – focus
  3. Pay attention to what is happening (self consciousness is the most common source of distraction and it is the very lack of self-consciousness that makes deep involvement possible.)
  4. Learn to enjoy the immediate experience

P. 213 “To create harmony in whatever one does is the last task that the flow theory presents to those 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. 215/6 “…any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life… What matters is that it focuses a person’s attention and involves it in an achievable, enjoyable activity.”

P. 217 “…a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life… It is not enough to find a purpose that unifies one’s goals; one must also carry through and meet its challenges. The purpose must result in strivings; intent has to be translated into action…. What counts is not so much whether a person actually achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether effort has been expended to reach the goal, instead of being diffused or wasted… Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it.

“…we admire people who seem to have come to terms with themselves.”

P. 220 “…a system of goals can help to organize life into a coherent flow activity.”

P. 223 “…we must invest energy in recognizing, understanding, and finding ways to adapt to the forces beyond the boundaries of our own individuality.”

“Purpose gives direction to one’s efforts, but does not necessarily make life easier.”

P. 224 “Billions of parents…have sacrificed themselves for their children and thereby made life more meaningful for themselves.”

P. 225 “…complexity and freedom…are a challenge we must find ways to master.”

P. 226 “… (most) goals that have sustained action over a period turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to the entirety of life…

Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other… If a man has not bothered to find out what he wants, if his attention is so wrapped up in external goals that he fails to notice his own feelings, then he cannot plan action meaningfully.”

P. 227 “The consequence of forging life by purpose and resolution is a sense of inner harmony.”

P. 228/9 “When there are too many demands, options, challenges, we become anxious; when too few, we become bored… Boredom is something children have learned the hard way, in response to artificially restricted choices.”

P. 230/1 “The life theme…identifies what will make existence enjoyable… When a person’s psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony… Discovered life themes are products of a personal struggle to define the purpose of life.”

P. 238 “If a new faith is to capture our imagination, it must be one that will account rationally for the things we know, the things we feel, the things we hope for, and the ones we dread. It must be a system of beliefs that will marshal our psychic energy toward meaningful goals, a system that provides rules for a way of life that can provide flow.”

Glenn Detrick