Flow - by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Flow - by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Read: 2022-12-25

Recommend: 8/10

I’ll use a quote from the book as a summary. Surprising at first sight, but it makes a lot of sense after reading the book. We can locate the goals, feedback, rules, and challenges in almost all activities in life, which potentially helps us make all activities enjoyable.

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.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. 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.

  2. I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—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 will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

  3. Everything we experience—joy or pain, interest or boredom—is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like.

  4. The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action.

  5. Wealth, power, and sex become the chief goals that give direction to their strivings. But the quality of life cannot be improved this way. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.

  6. It seems that every time a pressing danger is avoided, a new and more sophisticated threat appears on the horizon.

  7. “The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of J. H. Holmes. “It is simply indifferent.”

  8. 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.

  9. When Cyrus the Great had ten thousand cooks prepare new dishes for his table, the rest of Persia had barely enough to eat. These days every household in the “first world” has access to the recipes of the most diverse lands and can duplicate the feasts of past emperors. But does this make us more satisfied? This paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task. In fact, 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 from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.

  10. [hedonic adaptation] most people are caught up on this frustrating treadmill of rising expectations

  11. The lack of inner order manifests itself in the subjective condition that some call ontological anxiety, or existential dread. Basically, it is a fear of being, a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that existence is not worth going on with

  12. while humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience.

  13. It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response built into our genes for the preservation of the species, not for the purpose of our own personal advantage.

  14. The problem is that it has recently become fashionable to regard whatever we feel inside as the true voice of nature speaking. The only authority many people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.

  15. Submission to genetic programming can become quite dangerous, because it leaves us helpless. A person who cannot override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable. Instead of deciding how to act in terms of personal goals, he has to surrender to the things that his body has been programmed (or misprogrammed) to do.

  16. There is no question that to survive, and especially to survive in a complex society, it is necessary to work for external goals and to postpone immediate gratifications. But a person does not have to be turned into a puppet jerked about by social controls. The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers.

  17. “Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them,” said Epictetus a long time ago. And the great emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”

  18. This simple truth—that the control of consciousness determines the quality of life—has been known for a long time; in fact, for as long as human records exist. The oracle’s advice in ancient Delphi, “Know thyself,” implied it. It was clearly recognized by Aristotle, whose notion of the “virtuous activity of the soul” in many ways prefigures the argument of this book

  19. Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory.

  20. Progress is relatively fast in fields that apply knowledge to the material world, such as physics or genetics. But it is painfully slow when knowledge is to be applied to modify our own habits and desires.

  21. The function 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. In this sense, it functions as a clearinghouse for sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas, establishing priorities among all the diverse information.

  22. With this framework in mind, what, then, does it mean to be conscious? It simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course.

  23. Thus we might think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information.

  24. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals.

  25. The existence of people like these shows that consciousness can be ordered in terms of different goals and intentions. Each of us has this freedom to control our subjective reality.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events—such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions—happen there, it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.

  29. The outside event appears in consciousness purely as information, without necessarily having a positive or negative value attached to it. It is the self that interprets that raw information in the context of its own interests, and determines whether it is harmful or not.

  30. The opposite state from the condition of psychic entropy is optimal experience. When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy. But whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: “You are doing all right.” The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment.

  31. The “battle” is not really against the self, but against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention. The struggle does not necessarily have to be physical, as in the case of the climber. But anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.

  32. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable.

  33. Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.

  34. Pleasure is a feeling of contentment that one achieves whenever information in consciousness says that expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met.

  35. None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we think back on them and say, “That really was fun” and wish they would happen again. After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.

  36. As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

  37. A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills

  38. [the same applies to research papers] To most people, the sheer wall of El Capitan in Yosemite valley is just a huge chunk of featureless rock. But to the climber it is an arena offering an endlessly complex symphony of mental and physical challenges.

  39. The challenges of competition can be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear.

  40. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.

  41. In fact, one purpose of this book is to explore ways in which even routine details can be transformed into personally meaningful games that provide optimal experiences.

  42. Everybody develops routines to fill in the boring gaps of the day, or to bring experience back on an even keel when anxiety threatens.

  43. Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.

  44. 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. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimuli.

  45. It is for this reason that we called the optimal experience “flow.” The short and simple word describes well the sense of seemingly effortless movement.

  46. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow.

  47. unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.

  48. Some people have fragile selves that need constant reassurance, and for them the only information that counts is winning in a competitive situation.

  49. “sensation seekers.”

  50. what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.

  51. The “objective” conditions, however, happen to be deceptive, for it is actually the case that gamblers who enjoy games of hazard are subjectively convinced that their skills do play a major role in the outcome.

  52. When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.

  53. But in flow there is no room for self-scrutiny. Because enjoyable activities have clear goals, stable rules, and challenges well matched to skills, there is little opportunity for the self to be threatened.

  54. So loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self.

  55. This growth of the self occurs only if the interaction is an enjoyable one, that is, if it offers nontrivial opportunities for action and requires a constant perfection of skills.

  56. The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.

  57. The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

  58. Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.

  59. cruelty is a universal source of enjoyment for people who have not developed more sophisticated skills.

  60. Jefferson’s uncomfortable dictum “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” applies outside the fields of politics as well; it means that we must constantly reevaluate what we do, lest habits and past wisdom blind us to new possibilities.

  61. 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.

  62. 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 action within self-created boundaries.

  63. The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them—goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous. The second is centering, or the children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job. Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules—as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defenses, and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.

  64. The Latin motto of the modern Olympic games—Altius, citius, fortius—is a good, if incomplete summary of how the body can experience flow.

  65. 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 in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

  66. However, enjoyment, as we have seen, does not depend on what you do, but rather on how you do it.

  67. Eroticism is one form of cultivating sexuality that focuses on the development of physical skills. In a sense, eroticism is to sex as sport is to physical activity. The Kama Sutra and The Joy of Sex are two examples of manuals that aim to foster eroticism by providing suggestions and goals to help make sexual activity more varied, more interesting and challenging.

  68. It is impossible for partners not to grow bored unless they work to discover new challenges in each other’s company, and learn appropriate skills for enriching the relationship.

  69. How to keep love fresh? The answer is the same as it is for any other activity. To be enjoyable, a relationship must become more complex. To become more complex, the partners must discover new potentialities in themselves and in each other. To discover these, they must invest attention in each other

  70. Even when children are taught music, the usual problem often arises: too much emphasis is placed on how they perform, and too little on what they experience.

  71. The skills necessary to become good athletes, dancers, or connoisseurs of sights, sounds, or tastes are so demanding that one individual does not have enough psychic energy in his waking lifetime to master more than a few. But it is certainly possible to become a dilettante—in the finest sense of that word—in all these areas, in other words, to develop sufficient skills so as to find delight in what the body can do.

  72. One way to teach children the potential of words is by starting to expose them to wordplay quite early. Puns and double meanings may be the lowest form of humor for sophisticated adults, but they provide children with a good training ground in the control of language.

  73. Unfortunately many serious thinkers devote all their mental effort to becoming well-known scholars, but in the meantime they forget their initial purpose in scholarship.

  74. “amateur,” from the Latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a “dilettante,” from the Latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity.

  75. Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories.

  76. With all due respect to the Bible, however, it does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life.

  77. Joe appeared to be the only man who had the vision to perceive challenging opportunities for action. The rest of the welders we interviewed regarded their jobs as burdens to be escaped as promptly as possible

  78. 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.

  79. Some surgeons say that on the mornings before an important operation they put themselves on “automatic pilot” by eating the same breakfast, wearing the same clothes, and driving to the hospital by the same route. They do so not because they are superstitious, but because they sense that this habitual behavior makes it easier for them to devote their undivided attention to the challenge ahead.

  80. people wished to be doing something else to a much greater extent when working than when at leisure, and this regardless of whether they were in flow. In other words, motivation was low at work even when it provided flow, and it was high in leisure even when the quality of experience was low.

  81. 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.

  82. Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing. Most jobs and many leisure activities—especially those involving the passive consumption of mass media—are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else.

  83. 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.

  84. The habits of pornography and depersonalized sex build on the genetically programmed attraction of images and activities related to reproduction. They focus attention naturally and pleasurably, and in so doing help to exclude unwanted contents from the mind. What they fail to do is develop any of the attentional habits that might lead to a greater complexity of consciousness.

  85. 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.

  86. Unfortunately, too many adults feel that once they have hit twenty or thirty—or certainly forty—they are entitled to relax in whatever habitual grooves they have established.

  87. One can survive solitude, but only if one finds ways of ordering attention that will prevent entropy from destructuring the mind.

  88. John Fletcher’s words, “Those have most power to hurt us that we love.”

  89. Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to a set of laws. In other words, accepting limitations is liberating.

  90. To provide flow, a family has to have a goal for its existence.

  91. 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.

  92. Because our present social arrangements, however, do not provide adequate challenges for the skills teenagers have, they must discover opportunities for action outside those sanctioned by adults.

  93. As the popular sayings go, “Love means never having to say ‘I’m sorry,’”“Home is where you’re always welcome.” Being assured of one’s worth in the eyes of one’s kin gives a person the strength to take chances; excessive conformity is usually caused by fear of disapproval. It is much easier for a person to try developing her potential if she knows that no matter what happens, she has a safe emotional base in the family.

  94. Unconditional acceptance is especially important to children. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child when he fails to measure up, the child’s natural playfulness will be gradually replaced by chronic anxiety. However, if the child feels that his parents are unconditionally committed to his welfare, he can then relax and explore the world without fear; otherwise he has to allocate psychic energy to his own protection, thereby reducing the amount he can freely dispose of.

  95. Love without strings attached does not mean, of course, that relationships should have no standards, no punishment for breaking the rules. When there is no risk attached to transgressing rules they become meaningless, and without meaningful rules an activity cannot be enjoyable. Children must know that parents expect certain things from them, and that specific consequences will follow if they don’t obey. But they must also recognize that no matter what happens, the parents’ concern for them is not in question.

  96. A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form. It is someone who shares our goal of self-realization, and therefore is willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity entails.

  97. A community should be judged good not because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges.

  98. The reason tragic events were seen as positive was that they presented the victim with very clear goals while reducing contradictory and inessential choices.

  99. the same stressful event might make one person utterly miserable, while another will bite the bullet and make the best of it. This difference in how a person responds to stressful events has been called “coping ability” or “coping style.”

  100. The autotelic self transforms potentially entropic experience into flow.

    1. Setting goals.
    2. Becoming immersed in the activity.
    3. Paying attention to what is happening.
    4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience.
  101. having achieved flow in one activity does not necessarily guarantee that it will be carried over to the rest of life.

  102. Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience.

  103. The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.

  104. Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear.

  105. Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends.

  106. Every child, before self-consciousness begins to interfere, acts spontaneously with total abandon and complete involvement. Boredom is something children have to learn the hard way, in response to artificially restricted choices.