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A founding father of Positive Psychology, in his seminal work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (1990), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the key to happiness is to strive for ‘flow’ in our lives. Csikszentmihalyi argues that happiness can be achieved by taking control over our consciousness.
When I think about ‘flow’, I immediately think of that feeling you get when you are deeply immersed in an activity and completely lose track of time.
However, looking more closely at the topic in order to write this article has shown me that there is even more to ‘flow’ than first meets the eye.
This article contains:
The purpose of the following article is to provide an overview of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. I will look at topics covered in the book, including happiness and enjoyment, quality of life, culture, meaning, work and stress. Hopefully you will learn about the ‘Autotelic’ personality and psychic entropy, too.
A Quick Look at Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology (Book)
“Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology” (2014) is the second volume in Csikszentmihalyi’s collected works. Over the past thirty years, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work has looked at 3 main areas of study: attention, flow, and positive psychology. These concepts are clearly inter-related.
Csikszentmihalyi describes attention as “psychic energy”.
Following on from the foundations laid down by William James, Csikszentmihalyi (2014) examines the division of attention. He explores the ways that humans pay attention to tasks and when they do pay attention. In Csikszentmihalyi’s exploration of attention, he also looks at how much attention people pay to tasks, and how attention contributes to create ‘experiences’ – which are ordered patterns of information.
Considering theories of information processing along with psychology’s efforts to quantify the investments of individuals, the chapters of the book look at issues including time budgets and the creation of and use of the Experience Sampling Method of gathering information regarding attention in everyday life.
Moving on from the topic of attention, and exhibiting Csikszentmihalyi’s interest in sociology and anthropology, the book’s focus shifts to adult play and leisure.
Following on from this, Csikszentmihalyi introduces the concept of flow – which is a concept he formulated and developed. Interest within business and management has burgeoned in the concept of flow globally, and research on flow continues to prosper. I will look into flow in greater detail shortly.
To conclude Csikszentmihalyi’s text, he describes articles that have developed out of his connection with another key figure in the field of Positive Psychology – Martin Seligman. The articles consider concepts and theories from the topics of positive psychology. Finally, Csikszentmihalyi explores the development and relatively short history of the positive psychology “movement”.
Please note: the material for the review above was sourced from “Google books”, and is available here.
Do you wish to read this book? Here is the link.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Review and Summary (Extensive)
About Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the founders of the scientific research into happiness. Born in Hungary in 1934, Csikszentmihalyi’s experience of WW2 had a significant impact on his life and his later work (The Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.). As a child, Csikszentmihalyi was confined in an Italian prison and it was there that he first had ideas about flow and optimal experience. In an interview, he explained,
“I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter. For hours, I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals” (Sobel, D. (1995, January). Interview: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Omni, 73 – 90).
After hearing Carl Jung speak, Csikszentmihalyi became interested in Psychology and traveled to the United States (The Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
He did a little bit of painting himself, and this sparked his interest in studying artists and creative individuals, leading him to the conclusion that sometimes the process of creating was more significant than the finished piece of work (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
His work began with his doctoral dissertation that involved a study of how young artists went about creating a painting (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work has looked at holding onto the meaningful moments that make life worthwhile, or, as he described them ‘optimal experiences’. Csikszentmihalyi became extremely interested in what he termed the “flow” state – when individuals are so absorbed in a task, with deep focus and creative engagement (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
He began the study of flow at the University of Chicago, and it subsequently spread across the globe (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi went on to dedicate his life to exploring the different factors that are involved in achieving a state of flow.
Introduction to the Book
To begin this overview, I will give a general introduction to the book. In the book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Csikszentmihalyi uses case studies to demonstrate the way in which people can live happier, more meaningful lives by achieving “flow” in their personal and professional lives (Bokhari, n.d.). He makes it clear that this is not a “how to” book an achieving happiness:
“Books cannot give recipes for how to be happy” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ looks at how finding a sense of happiness is achieved through control of one’s inner life. It looks at a wide variety of issues related to this, beginning with an exploration of how consciousness works and how it is controlled.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, all experiences, such as pain or joy, boredom or interest, are embodied in our minds as information (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). It is by the control of this information that we are able to make a decision as to what our lives will be like (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
What is Optimal Experience?
Optimal experience relies upon a person controlling the moment-to-moment aspects of consciousness – or, put another way, there is “order in consciousness” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 6). This occurs when psychic energy (or, as more commonly referred to as ‘attention’) is focused on realistic goals, and when a person’s skills are in alignment with their opportunities for action.
“The pursuit of a goal brings order into awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 6).
Hardship need not be a barrier to enjoyment. In fact, people nominate times when a person has struggled to overcome challenges as the most enjoyable times in the person’s life.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looks into this in the Chapter 3 of the book.
He goes on to explain that a person who has found control of attention and set deliberately selective goals will therefore develop into a more complex person. He describes a person who has extended their skills through achieving higher challenges as an “increasingly extraordinary individual” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 6).
Conditions of the Flow Experience
To look into the reasons why some things that we do are more enjoyable than others,
- In Chapter 4, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) reviews the ‘conditions of the flow experience’. Looking into which activities reliably help one enter a state of flow (including games, sports, art, hobbies) allows for comprehending the reasons people feel happy.
- However, rather than relying on activities that consistently produce flow, to truly find a sense of control of the mind one can draw upon a wide range of activities as sources of enjoyment. For example, a person could use their physical and sensory skills by being actively involved in activities such as athletics, music, or yoga which Csikszentmihalyi (1990) looks at in Chapter 5.
- Or, as he reviews in Chapter 6, a person could develop ‘symbolic’ skills through activities including poetry, philosophy, or mathematics (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
A large portion of our lives revolve around two aspects – working, and interacting with other people (especially family members).
- In Chapter 7, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) looks at how to ‘transform jobs into flow-producing activities’ and then…
- In Chapter 8, he explores how to make ‘relationships with parents, spouses, children and friends more enjoyable’.
Even the most well-off individuals are not immune to various sorts of stress and even tragedy. However, such unfortunate events do not necessarily lessen or impede a person’s happiness. The key to determining whether a person benefits from unfortunate or is simply miserable lies in the person’s response to stress.
- In Chapter 9, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) examines ‘ways in which people manage to enjoy life despite adversity’.
- The final chapter (Chapter 10) of ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ looks at how people are able to ‘join all experience into a meaningful pattern’.
Once a person has a sense of meaning, and control over their life, and a feeling that their life makes sense, there is:
“nothing left to desire. The fact that one is not slim, rich, or powerful no longer matters. The tide of rising expectations is skilled; unfulfilled needs no longer trouble the mind. Even the most humdrum experiences become enjoyable” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 7).
This, then is what Csikszentmihalyi sees as the “optimal experience”.
A Brief Look at Flow
Csikszentmihalyi’s main argument in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is that happiness is not a fixed state. Rather, he argues that happiness can be developed through striving for ‘flow’ in our lives (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
What, then, is flow?
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is:
“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.4.).
The central premise of flow is control. In a flow-like state, individuals display control of the contents of their consciousness instead of allowing themselves to be passively controlled by external forces (The Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
Goals and Challenge
Csikszentmihalyi talks about control, and the role of challenging goals:
“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 we make happen” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3.).
Csikszentmihalyi argues that happiness is a result of the way in which we invest our ‘psychic energy’ (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.). By setting our minds to striving for a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy then “flows” (literally) in the direction of the goal.
This then leads to re-ordering of consciousness and a sense of harmony (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.). “Flow” is not embodied in subjective feelings – even the positive ones (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.). Instead, flow involves the exclusion of interference from the thinking mind.
When he looked at flow and happiness, rather than examining the nature of happiness, per se, Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) research instead looked at “when are people most happy?”.
He examined what people are actually doing when they find a state of fulfillment or enjoyment. To explore this, Csikszentmihalyi gave people a pager, and buzzed them throughout the week at random times. The person was then asked to note exactly what they were doing at that time, and the feelings produced by the activity (Bokhari, n.d.). This is termed the Experience Sampling Method.
The results from the ‘beeper’ study showed that rather than just occurring by chance, or being associated with external events, the best moments in life could be characterized and predicted when the person was doing a specific activity (Bokhari, n.d.).
These activities that were the most valuable were described as “optimal experiences” or “flow”. When the person was engaged in these activities, their worry or thoughts of other things were banished (Bokhari, n.d.). A person in a state of flow has a sense that they are involved in the creation of something bigger – athletes refer to this as ‘being in the zone’ whilst artists call it ‘rapture’ (Bokhari, n.d.).
Being ‘in the zone’ describes a state where your mind is completely absorbed by an activity so that you “forget yourself” and are able to act without effort and have an amplified sense of the here and now (The Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
A sportsman who is ‘in the zone’ is not consciously thinking about ‘how can I pass the ball?’, for example, because if they did this would disrupt the flow-like state and impair performance (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
Happiness, according to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), is not a result of good fortune or random chance, rather it depends on how we interpret events.
“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” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 2).
Csikszentmihalyi argues that happiness comes from this state of control of consciousness:
“whether we are happy depends on our inner harmony, not in the controls we are able to exert over the greater forces of the universe” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p 9).
Enjoyment and Quality of Life
In this text, Csikszentmihalyi makes a clear distinction between enjoyment and pleasure. As he explains, a task that is challenging and requires all of our attention is enjoyed, whereas a pleasurable activity is passive – it does not have to engage us (Bokhari, n.d.).
For example, whilst activities such as sleeping, watching the television, or even using drugs can be said to be pleasurable, they require little conscious will – and thus do not really lead to personal growth (Bokhari, n.d.). Therefore, according to Csikszentmihalyi, such activities are not truly enjoyed.
Discovering enjoyment needs you to have a level of connection with what is going on around you, to uncover new things to do, and to engage in opportunities that can result in personal growth (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Looking at engaging in activities that can lead to personal growth, Csikszentmihalyi suggests individuals turn their focus to cultivating involvement with passions and hobbies… so, for example, if a person derives pleasure from plants, they could take up gardening.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, we are genuinely happy when we have a sense of control. ‘Flow’ is directed by us, and provides a feeling of mastery. Pursuit of goals is thought to be enjoyable because goals bring an “order of awareness”. This is the case regardless of how the person feels when the goal is actually achieved. Csikszentmihalyi argues, therefore, that happiness results from an “ordered mind” (Bokhari, n.d.).
Control Over Consciousness
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the idea that control of consciousness determines quality of life is not new (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Many techniques have been employed for trying to achieve control over consciousness, and the control of consciousness results in control of the quality of an experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
In seeking enjoyment, the aim of an activity should not be to pursue external rewards or goals. For example, a person should not establish a business because they desperately want to be wealthy. (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Rather, it is better for the person to focus on doing the activity because they enjoy it in spite of outside rewards or goals. So, for example, invest in the stock market just because you find investing, and the thought process that it entails, enjoyable.
If, on the other hand, you are engaged in the activity for external reasons – such as hoping to get rich or become famous – it is likely that you won’t find pleasure in the daily tasks and the routine of the activity. In time, this will lead to boredom, anxiety, or other negative emotional states (Hasty Reader, 2017).
People enjoying the experience of flow don’t need an explanation of it… they just know that the experience allows them to have a sense of purpose and self-knowledge (two crucial elements of happiness) (Bokhari, n.d.).
8 Components of Flow
According to a summary by Bokhari (n.d.), Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow can be looked at according to 8 components:
- To confront tasks we have a chance at completing
- Concentration (which is usually possible when we take on a task or activity that has…)
- Clearly defined goals, and…provides you with
- Immediate feedback as to how much you are making progress. Whatever activity you’re partaking in…
- Feels effortless and allows you to forget (even for a little while) about the worries and frustrations of everyday life (for example, bills, relationship issues and so on). You’re in…
- Control – insecurities disappear
- Confidence arises. You stop caring what everyone else thinks about you. And, paradoxically, your personal self-worth tends to come back stronger after the flow experience is complete
- You completely lose track of time
Culture and Flow
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s work, culture provides a defence against chaos…
“one of the major functions of every culture has been to shield its members from chaos, to reassure them of their importance and ultimate success” (1990, p. 11).
Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow gives a person the feeling of ‘being alive’ (Bokhari, n.d.). Flow is also said to lead to a person becoming more ‘complex’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). It is thought that a person is more complex because they have an awareness of being unique, and they have a heightened understanding of the way that they fit into the world and the relationships that you have with other people (Bokhari, n.d.).
In other words, flow links you to the world and makes you more unique. Flow also has an effect on communities and nations (Bokhari, n.d.). Especially in these busy times of ‘rush, rush, rush’, successful nations and societies will be ones that enable their citizens to have as many opportunities as possible to engage in ‘flow’ inducing activity (Bokhari, n.d.).
Enhancing a ‘flow-based’ culture would instill an “in the moment” way of life (Bokhari, n.d.). The passing of time has become such a pressure in modern society, which would be relieved if people were living in, and enjoying, the present – in a state of flow (Bokhari, n.d.).
Flow, Freud and Meaning
According to Csikszentmihalyi, Freudian terms can be used to describe what happens when flow produces a stronger sense of self. Examining the work of Freud, the self is viewed as comprising of 3 parts:
- The ‘id’, or the part responsible for innate drives and instinctive impulses;
- The ‘superego’, which reflects societal values and expectations; and
- The ‘ego’, which is the aspect of consciousness that we are aware of an that is also able to take control over the other parts (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
An example. You are with your friends after work at a bar.
The ‘id’ might give you the impulse to have another alcoholic drink – despite you knowing that you have an early start the next day.
The ‘superego’ could then reinforce the urge via peer pressure from your friends.
Nevertheless, you still have the capacity to refute these demands and act in accordance with what is best for you (Pursuit of Happiness, n.d.).
In other words, your ego is what allows you to override external forces by claiming conscious control over the contents of your mind. In such terms, it is said therefore that flow can be described as the acquired capacity of the ‘ego’ to control our instinctual side and the social values or expected ‘norms’ imposed on us.
Flow and Our Personal Development
Csikszentmihalyi found something extraordinary about the experience of flow – that, each time a person has an experience of flow, they develop into more of a person (Bokhari, n.d.). From the absorption of knowledge, and the modification of a skill, the self is enlarged and becomes more ‘ordered’ therefore forming an “increasingly extraordinary individual” (Bokhari, n.d.).
Life without flow can seem static, boring and meaningless, leading individuals to pursue opportunities to create flow.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that happiness and a sense of meaning can be enhanced by simply doing more of what we love doing (Bokhari, n.d.). He also suggests that the “meaning of life” can thus be answered at a subjective, personal level – the meaning of life is whatever is meaningful to me.
Searching for the ‘bigger picture’ of life is common to all people who are mentally and emotionally stable (Bokhari, n.d.). Human beings are inherently purpose driven, and if they do not have a sense of purpose, people struggle to find one (Bokhari, n.d.).
Work as Flow
What does flow look like in the workplace? Life can get complicated when we try to keep track of our day-to-day or even hour-to-hour goals, because we are dealing with the everyday occurrences of life (Hasty Reader, 2017). How can we reach the elusive sense of flow and lose track of time at work whilst still pursuing our goals?
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that a sense of flow can be experienced when a person is engaged in any particular activity, by applying a high level of concentration, having a clear set of goals, and keeping tabs of one’s results (Bokhari, n.d.). Therefore, even if a person is doing something that the majority of other people would find boring, the person can still experience a state of flow (Bokhari, n.d.).
For example, consider a factory worker counting objects on an assembly line. The person can create a sense of flow by setting himself a target goal which he then repeatedly tries to ‘beat’ – e.g. count 500 objects the first day, 600 the second day, 700 objects the day after that, etc.
Therefore, to experience flow at work, set the purpose for whatever activity you are doing (Hasty Reader, 2017). To be able to feel a sense of flow, set small, step-by-step goals rather than bigger, overarching goals. Flow demands standardization and is process focused (Bokhari, n.d.).
Therefore, flow in work occasionally requires making a task more bearable, rather than an ‘extraordinary’ experience. The key, then, is to approach every activity that you do with goals – this allows you to incorporate the activity with the rest of your life and also give yourself meaning as you go (Hasty Reader, 2017). Goals are an important consideration.
On Flow and Goal-Setting
Explanations of human behavior began with Aristotle – who assumed that a person’s actions are driven by goals (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Everyone loses their focus occasionally – so it is helpful for a worker to know how to find an immediate state of flow (Bokhari, n.d.).
One way, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is to make an activity more fun and engaging by transforming the activity into a game (Hasty Reader, 2017).
For example, an example from ‘home related’ work – folding clothes. To find flow in this activity, one tactic to try would be to create a game where you set out to fold the clothes in new and different ways. Although such activities won’t be quite enjoyable as an actual game, at least the work will be less boring than it was previously (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Flow and Leadership
What about leadership in the workplace? Well, in his book Csikszentmihalyi explains that good leaders have the capacity to clearly establish the values of an organization, to make the values straightforward and the leader aligns themselves with them (Bokhari, n.d.).
Csikszentmihalyi says that integrity in the workplace is valued and allows employees to truly feel like part of the team (Bokhari, n.d.). A caring leader will also recognize that sometimes they need to sacrifice their own values in order to meet the needs of others.
The challenge for a conscious leader is to find a level of harmony and balance between their values and the values of the people they lead (Bokhari, n.d.).
The Role of Feedback
Feedback is a highly important aspect of flow in work as well as in everyday life (Hasty Reader, 2017). By giving us results and consequences about our actions, feedback engages us in an activity. We also learn and improve through the process of engaging in that activity (Hasty Reader, 2017).
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s book, when feedback is not immediately apparent – for example, when doing a chore such as washing the dishes, the activity does not provide a sense of growth and learning, and is therefore not enjoyable.
Activities that allow one to experience a state of flow are called “autotelic” (this word is derived from the Greek terms ‘auto’ – self, and ‘telos’ – purpose). Autotelic activities – for example, hobbies and projects of passion – are activities not done for an external reward, they are just done for their own sake (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Although most people can think of one or two personally autotelic activities, some people are able to make every activity generate flow. Such individuals are known as having an ‘autotelic personality’ (Hasty Reader, 2017).
People with an autotelic personality have clear purpose, goals and feedback and have the ability to ‘center’ or focus on a single goal. An autotelic personality can enable individuals to effectively manage even the most impossible and traumatic experiences.
Beyond simply coping, an autotelic personality gives you the capacity to live your life differently – to live in a way in which you enjoy even the chores and minor details of daily life.
The Role of Conscious Decision-Making
In Csikszentmihalyi’s work, he explains that people with an autotelic personality have an awareness that they always have a choice in what they do – i.e. they are not a ‘victim of fate’ (Hasty Reader, 2017). These people, who are sometimes referred to as having ‘complex’ personalities, care deeply about everything they do, and commit to doing it.
They are challenge seeking, and are able to discover ways in which to interpret their experiences in a positive way (Hasty Reader, 2017). Autotelic personalities are not innate, rather they are nurtured.
What are the four habits that characterize an autotelic personality? Hasty Reader (2017) summarises Csikszentmihalyi’s work:
1. Ability to set goals
Setting goals is the first think you need to do to find a state of flow when encountering various difficulties.
Csikszentmihalyi introduced the case of a CEO of a large US financial company. The executive had, for every activity he engaged in, a sense of purpose. He had purposes for even small events. For example, when entering a room full of new people, he would make it his purpose to get to know the people present, to have a sense of who they are and what they do in their life.
His motivations were not to get to know the other people in order to manipulate them. Rather, his aim was to get to know the people in the room for the sake of knowing, and in order to learn something from them.
2. Knowing how to pay attention
A person with an autotelic personality is able to control their attention and what their attention is actually focused on.
Furthermore, when such individuals engage in something, they are doing it because they want to – not because the necessity of the situation forces them to.
3. Ability to immerse in the activity
Once a goal has been set, and attention concentrated on it, the third habit becomes apparent. This habit enables a person with an autotelic personality to fully immerse themselves in an activity and enjoy it simply for its own sake.
Immersing yourself in this way enables you to notice the signals and feedback that are inherent in the task, which then allows you to learn the more complicated aspects of the activity. By consistently acquiring new information, you can use the information to achieve your goals or even adjust them as you go.
This, in turn, also makes an individual an active participant in whatever happens around them – so, the person never feels left out or excluded.
4. Enjoyment of an activity, and a sense of high energy
If you combine the first three habits, you will then be able to fully enjoy the activity that you’re engaged in. Furthermore, this enjoyment in turn gives you energy and liveliness. What does this look like? Well, in social situations, a state of flow may be manifested in charisma. A state of flow may enable a scientist to access a state of creativity which then results in a breakthrough idea.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow results from conquering the ‘natural’ state of mind, which is one of chaos and ‘psychic entropy’.
“Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of mind is chaos…when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic order of the mind reveals itself…Entropy is the mind state of consciousness – a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 119).
As Csikszentmihalyi explained, psychic entropy is a phenomenon where the mind will be in disorder because it is inundated by problems, which means that thoughts are scattered and it is difficult to think clearly and pay attention to the goals which are a priority (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Psychic entropy leads to inner conflict, between what our minds want to do compared to what our bodies want to do. Psychic entropy disrupts our concentration and leads us to pursue a number of different desires and purposes (Hasty Reader, 2017). Psychic entropy also results in ‘broken consciousness’ because we cannot meet the majority of our goals.
Psychic Entropy vs. Flow
Most significantly, perhaps, is the fact that psychic entropy makes it impossible to enter a state of flow. It affects our capacity to concentrate and direct our attention to things that we want to achieve (Hasty Reader, 2017).
If you clear the mind of different concerns and thoughts, you can then focus on just one activity at a time and fully engage with it. This allows you to engage with the activity fully and achieve peace, plus find a serene state of ‘flow’ – which is not only more efficient, but also more enjoyable (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Psychic entropy is also associated with the mental states of boredom and anxiety. Trying to work, or even do any sort of activity, when bored or anxious feels like a chore and is overwhelmingly challenging.
Let’s take a closer look at the states of boredom and anxiety.
Boredom, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is related to two causes.
Firstly, it is caused by lack of challenge in a task. In a state of boredom, one’s skills and abilities surpass the difficulty of the task, and as such by engaging in the task, the person doesn’t have a sense that they are learning from the task or achieving anything by doing it (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Secondly, boredom is associated with the absence of feedback – this gives you a sense that the task you are doing does not matter and does not have an influence on the world around you (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Anxiety is the other main entropic psychological state. It comes about when you are inundated by too many tasks at once, or the fact that what you are trying to do surpasses your skill level (Hasty Reader, 2017). When you feel anxious, your mind goes into ‘self-defense’ mode and you are no longer in control of your consciousness.
Rather, you feel as though decisions are being made for you. When anxious, it is extremely difficult to focus and it is difficult to ‘center’ yourself to allow you to do what is necessary (Hasty Reader, 2017).
How, then, do you avoid boredom and anxiety?
According to Csikszentmihalyi, it is relatively simple. He suggests that you do things ‘for their own sake’ (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Flow and stress
What does Csikszentmihalyi say about stress? Well, he explains that stress is essentially a mechanism designed to increase survival – in simple terms, the body sees a potential threat and the stress response is activated to allow you to either fight the threat, or to flee it (Hasty Reader, 2017).
Sources of stress are many and varied, and an inevitable part of being human. Stress cannot be avoided.
Just as issues such as health problems and failed relationships generate and evoke stress, they also result in high psychic entropy (Hasty Reader, 2017). Stress results from objectives and worries that differ, and it also stops you from paying attention to a single objective. Stress acts to prevent you fully immersing in life as a flow experience, and enjoying it (Hasty Reader, 2017).
However, stress is not always automatic – it is a response to threat. This means that it is possible to take control of the sources of external stress and the impact that stressors have on us.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that there are 3 ways of doing this, as described by Hasty Reader (2007):
1. Unselfconscious self-assurance:
In a state of flow, you can ‘lose yourself’ in an activity and this stops you from monitoring anything else. Therefore, with flow enabling you to detach from the world and its worries and difficulties, this makes flow a formidable way to manage stress. However, occasionally stressful experiences are too significant to simply ignore.
Therefore, one way to avoid a stressor disrupting our experience of flow is to detach from it and assess it ‘coldly’ and without emotion. This enables you to minimize the emotional impact of the problem, and reduce the impact of it on your peace of mind when it eventuates.
The most effective way to detach from difficulties is to have self-assurance, and confidence, in your skills and abilities and the way that these enable you to cope with a challenging situation.
Consider two drivers… Imagine driving on a road with busy traffic.
- A skilled driver won’t be overwhelmed, because he has an assurance that he can handle the traffic and knows he has good driving skills. Therefore, the driver has a sense of calm for the whole trip.
- On the other hand, a novice driver will be stressed and worried as he carefully analyses every single turn or overtaking another vehicle. This, ironically, can actually increase the changes of the driver having an accident – because some of his mental capacities are taken up by worrying, not driving. So, even if this driver does not have an accident, this experience will leave a beginner exhausted and probably shaken.
2. Pay attention to the outside environment
You may be quite self-assured and have confidence in your skills – however, you may still find yourself in situations that lead to your confidence faltering. An example of this is if you’ve had an emotional confrontation with your boss about an issue related to work.
Essentially, there are a couple of ways that you can respond. You may feel bad about the argument and a bit sorry for yourself. You internalize the stress, and inevitably this leads to chaos in your mind and consciousness.
You may have thoughts like, “she hates me and will probably fire me soon”.
On the other hand, you could assess the situation carefully, and seek an explanation for what led to the confrontation. You examine what has occurred as objectively as possible, for example looking at what led to the argument. By this stage, you are immersed in what is a more constructive mental process. You are processing worthwhile, valuable information that will prepare you better for similar situations in future.
In other words, you are engaging in learning, and improving yourself.
3. Find new solutions to the stressors in your life
Being confident in your skills will only lead you so far. After that, it is necessary to discover actual solutions to the problems in your life so that they don’t occur again. This is not only a learning experience, but it also instils a sense of hope, because you are aware that you may no longer have to deal with a certain problem.
Why, then, did Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi name his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”?
Well, in the book it is suggested that finding flow in one’s life is perhaps the closest thing to discover true happiness.
Even though it requires time and effort to develop a personality that can find flow experiences on the go, the result is life-changing.
Free Sample (PDF)
Fancy reading more about flow? Here is a free sample, in PDF format.
Where to Purchase
“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is available online through Amazon, Booktopia, Harper Collins and Book Depository.
It is also found in hard-copy in all reputable bookstores.
The physical book is available from Amazon, at this link (Amazon).
Perhaps an audiobook is the most convenient form of Csikszentmihalyi’s book? Here it is.
Download eBook (EPUB)
Follow this link to access an eBook.
5 Recommended Ted Talks and Videos
If you have some free time, or to get a quick overview of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, maybe you would like to check these out
1. TED Talk – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow – 2004
2. Flow, the Secret to Happiness
3. FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi | Core Message
4. Flow By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
5. Living in flow – the secret of happiness with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Happiness & Its Causes 2014
A Take Home Message
Wow. Reading Csikszentmihalyi’s work has left me with a couple of thoughts which I would like to share. Perhaps the stand out message from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience for me personally was the premise that the meaning of life is what is meaningful to me.
Suddenly, I have an understanding of what really matters in my life. It is also empowering to know that happiness is within our own agency: by taking control of our inner world, we find ourselves closer to happiness than perhaps ever.
What did you take from Csikszentmihalyi’s work? Perhaps it is an understanding of what flow is. Or, perhaps it is understanding that happiness comes about with ‘order of consciousness’. Have you been inspired to read Csikszentmihalyi’s book?
You can hopefully see from this article that it touches on a range of positive psychology topics. What experiences bring you a state of flow? Do you make the time to engage in these activities? What do you notice happen if you do/don’t? I would love to hear your comments.
- Bokhari, D. (n.d.). Book summary – Flow.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
- Google Books (n.d.). Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology. Retrieved from https://books.google.com.au/books?isbn=9401790884
- Hasty Reader (2017). (Summary) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Retrieved from https://hastyreader.com/flow-psychology-mihaly-csikszentmihalyi/
- The Pursuit of Happiness (n.d.). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.