"The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 3)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called Flow. In this state they are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this "optimal experience" they feel "strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities." In the footsteps of Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi insists that happiness does not simply happen. It must be prepared for and cultivated by each person, by setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for ones abilities.
The experience of "flow" is strikingly reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s description of "great skill" achieved by Daoist sages such as carpenter P’ien and butcher Ting, the latter finding bliss in the art of chopping up ox carcasses by "going along with the Dao" of the ox. It is no coincidence that these blue-collar sages are situated on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They discover the Dao much more readily than Confucian scholars, who, according to Zhuangzi, are studying the "dregs of wisdom" in lifeless books and have lost touch with the world of concrete affairs.
You are skiing down a mountain trail at Aspen Colorado — one of the expert diamond slopes, with the awe-inspiring, snow-capped Rockies in your view. Though you have skied down this slope before, you have never been able to “dominate” it — until now. You begin to hit your stride, striking every mogul perfectly, effortlessly. Your actions seem frozen in time and every little sound becomes more intense — the crisp slap of your skis against the powder, the scrunch of your knees, and your rhythmic breathing. You are flowing down the slope, and later you might even describe yourself as having become “one with the mountain.” All those years of training and struggling, taking ski lessons and tumbling into the woods, are now finally justified. You have had, quite literally, a peak experience.
If not in skiing, you may have had similar experiences in other activities — some other challenging exercise, working on a difficult project, or even to a certain degree in simpler exercises like reading or conversation with a friend. These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you “forget yourself” and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as “being in the zone”). You may be surprised to learn, however, that in recent years this experience has become the focus of much research by positive psychologists. Indeed, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition — “flow.”
Some Background: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness. He was born in Hungary in 1934 and, like many of his contemporaries, he was touched by the Second World War in ways that deeply affected his life and later work. During his childhood, he was put in an Italian prison. It was here, amid the misery and loss of family and friends during the war, that he had his first inkling of his seminal work in the area of flow and optimal experience. In an interview, he noted, “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.).
During a trip to Switzerland, Csikszentmihalyi heard Carl Jung speak and this sparked an interest in psychology. As a fairly new discipline, there were few options in Europe for further study and so he traveled to the United States. As an artist who had dabbled in painting himself, Csikszentmihalyi started his initial observations and studies on artists and creative types. He noted that the act of creating seemed at times more important than the finished work itself and he was fascinated by what he called the “flow” state, in which the person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement. He set his life’s work to scientifically identify the different elements involved in achieving such a state.
His now-famous Experience Sampling Study (a.k.a. Beeper Study) was a particularly inventive way to make happiness a measurable phenomenon. A group of teenagers were given beepers that went off during random times throughout the day. They were asked to record their thoughts and feelings at the time of the beeps. Most of the entries indicated that the teens were unhappy, but Csikszentmihalyi found that when their energies were focused on a challenging task, they tended to be more upbeat. This and other studies helped shape his seminal work on flow. His studies and subsequent findings gained still more popular interest and he is today considered one of the founding figures of positive psychology.
Happiness as a Flow-Like State
The main thesis of Csikszentmihalyi’s most popular book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), is that happiness is not a fixed state but can be developed as we learn to achieve flow in our lives. The key aspect to flow is control: in the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces. As he writes,
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)
Unsurprisingly, this Hungarian psychologist comes to a conclusion not unlike those of the great thinkers of the past: that happiness comes from within oneself. He points to ways in which humans have attempted in vain to find happiness through assigning power to things outside of one’s control, and he quotes Marcus Aurelius approvingly when the Stoic philosopher writes, “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 power now.” (Cskiszentmihalyi, 1990, p.20) The key to happiness consists in how we invest our psychic energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy literally “flows” in the direction of that goal, resulting in a re-ordering and harmony within consciousness.
Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as “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.” (Cskikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.4) He identifies a number of different elements involved in achieving flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way.
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills.
- Action and awareness are merged.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
- There is no worry of failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- The sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes an end in itself.
As the above qualities indicate, the flow-like state is not primarily characterized by subjective feelings,even positive ones. Rather, the essence of flow is the removal of the interference of the thinking mind. When Michael Jordan is “in the zone” and making that behind-the-back pass, he is not consciously thinking “how can I pass the ball,” and if he did, he would interrupt his flow-like state and probably throw the ball into the stands. Absorption in a task indicates the absence of the self, and a merging of your awareness into the activity you are engaged in. As positive psychologist Martin Seligman puts it, “Consciousness and emotion are there to correct your trajectory; when what you are doing is seamlessly perfect, you don’t need them (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p. 116).”
While Csikszentmihalyi’s research focuses on the area of work and creative output, he sees that the state of flow is applicable to relationships and situations; even times of adversity can transform into a challenge rather than a setback. He even concludes that there are people who have developed their flow to such an extent that they are able to translate every potential threat into an enjoyable challenge, and thereby maintain an inner tranquility as a continuous state of mind. He calls such a person an “autotelic self,” someone who “is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time.” Now one might think that such a state is reserved for the few great human beings such as Socrates, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama; but in fact, the examples that Csikszentmihalyi gives are of ordinary people who are able to find delight in ordinary daily tasks.
Consider the case of “Joe the Welder.” Here is someone who chooses to give up a higher-paying promotion to foreman because he loves his job as a simple welder. Over the years he has come to master every phase of the plant’s operation: he can fix any piece of machinery no matter how complex, and he looks forward to every challenge as an opportunity to test his skills. While the other welders view their jobs as toilsome burdens from which they must escape (typically into booze and television), Joe relishes every moment of the day and hence doesn’t need to escape from anything. Having an autotelic personality, he is able to create flow experiences even in the most barren environment, and hence live a fulfilling life, despite his relatively low salary and social status.
From this example and many others, Csikszentmihalyi points to five ways through which one is able to cultivate one’s self into an autotelic person:
- Setting goals that have clear and immediate feedback
- Becoming immersed in the particular activity
- Paying attention to what is happening in the moment
- Learning to enjoy immediate experience
- Proportioning one’s skills to the challenge at hand
As these criteria indicate, flow is created by activities with a specific set of properties: they are challenging, require skill, have clear and immediate feedback (one knows whether one is doing the activity properly or not), and have well-defined success or failure metrics. Flow is a constant balancing act between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for the person's skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low (see figure 1).
Thus flow is a dynamic rather than static state, since a properly constructed flow activity leads to increased skill, challenge, and complexity over time. Since one's skill doesn't remain static, repeating the same activity would fall into boredom; the flow reward inspires one to face harder challenges. This is why sports are extremely well-designed for producing flow; another popular activity that appears to meet these criteria (and thus explains its wide appeal) is the playing of video games. The only problem, Csikszentmihalyi writes, is that these kind of flow activities can easily become addictive, which ultimately results in a loss of the control of consciousness and thus further unhappiness.
Flow as Control of Consciousness
Csikszentmihalyi recounts research on the amount of information the brain can process at a time, and points out the constant tradeoffs that we're making about what we're paying attention to out of the huge variety of possibilities. One key aspect of flow is that, while in flow, nearly all of the brain's available inputs are devoted to one activity. This is why the perception of time changes, discomfort goes unnoticed, and stray negative thoughts don't enter the mind. The brain is too busy focusing on one thing to keep track of all those other things. We see here an obvious link between flow and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or the kind of attention involved in meditation and yoga. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi argues that Hatha Yoga in particular is one of the best models to describe what happens when psychic energy is flowing along a single channel of consciousness. As he writes,
The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.1o5)
Maybe now you can understand why some people choose to spend so many hours contorted in such strange bodily positions: they are achieving a deep flow-like state and hence a strong sense of inner control and harmony. And indeed, the ultimate goal of Yoga is to achieve a state called moksha, a liberation from the self, described as combining three main qualities: sat-chit-ananda, or being, consciousness, and bliss. Using the flow model to describe spiritual practices such as yoga may help to explain why people who engage in such practices seem to be so happy and peaceful.
Csikszentmihalyi is quick to point out, however, that flow can be achieved by many other activities that don’t require such elaborate commitments. One can achieve such a state while skiing, fishing, playing the guitar, cooking, reading, or even having a conversation and eating food. Furthermore, while Yoga represents the ultimate state as liberation from the self, Csikszentmihalyi sees flow as producing a stronger self. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi often uses Freudian terms to explain what is happening, even though he is not himself a Freudian psychologist.
According to Freud, the self is composed of three different parts: 1) the “Id” which represents instinctual drives or our “nature;” 2) the “Superego” which represents values or expectations imposed on us by society, our “nurture,” and 3) the “Ego,” which is the part of consciousness we are aware of and which can take control over the other parts (see Figure 2). For example, the Id may give you an impulse to have that extra beer even though you know you have to get up early for work in the morning. The Superego could reinforce that impulse through peer pressure from your buddies at the bar. However, you still have the ability to reject these demands and choose to do what is best for yourself. Your Ego is what enables you take conscious control over the contents of your mind and hence achieve mastery over external forces. In these terms, then, flow can be described as the developed capacity of the Ego to master our instinctual/animal sides and the external pressures of the Superego.
Given his adoption of Freud’s theory of the self and the emphasis on flow as a kind of control, we can see that Csikszentmihalyi is operating well within a set of assumptions common to western philosophy and science. These assumptions include the idea that “progress” and even “enlightenment” is a matter of Man emancipating himself from the power of Nature. Thus Csikszentmihalyi claims that flow is a matter of overcoming the “natural” state of the mind which is one of chaos and “psychic entropy.” As he writes,
Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos … when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic order of the mind reveals itself … Entropy is the normal state of consciousness — a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.119)
As we shall see, this is one of the main differences between Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow and the Taoist tradition, which sees flow as regaining the natural harmony of the mind as oneness with Tao or the Way. For now, it is enough to point out that flow is not simply a matter of “letting go” or passively accepting things as they are. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi expresses a particular dislike for television, since he believes it is primarily a way of distracting the brain from psychic entropy without creating a challenge and feedback loop that could lead to flow. Reading is a much better flow activity, since it often requires complex skills of imagination and interpretation; furthermore, there are increasing stages of complexity as one graduates from the pleasures of young romance novels to high literature like Shakespeare or Tolstoy.
Pleasure and Flow
Another consequence of this concept of flow is the confirmation of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view that happiness cannot be identified with pleasure. While a pleasurable experience is typically a passive state, like watching television, enjoying a massage, or ingesting a pill, the flow experience is an active state that is completely within the control of the person. The effortlessness that is achieved during the flow experience is only arrived at after engaged focus and goal-directed behavior. In our opening example, the effortlessness and pleasure of flowing down the ski slope was made possible only by years of perfecting and honing that particular skill. As the New York Times review article of Csikszentmihalyi’s book succinctly put it, “the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge” (Tavris, 1990). Indeed, flow experiences often consist of painful bodily sensations, as when an athlete pushes himself beyond his normal limits in order to win a race, or rounds the bases to score the winning run. Despite the pain, these are the moments that people often recall as being the peak moments of their lives.
Martin Seligman has drawn on Csikszentmihalyi’s work to mark a distinction between pleasures and gratifications. While pleasures are states that have clear sensory and emotional components, gratifications are marked by energies that demand your strengths and allow you to lose self-consciousness. A lot of research indicates that pleasurable experiences, including enjoying food, sex, and even relaxation states (taking a nap, for example), are strong components of happiness, in addition to the “mindful challenge” states of flow. Seligman proposes that the aspect of happiness that can be voluntarily obtained is a matter of the appropriate balance between pleasure and flow. Eating a sirloin steak, for example, can produce a highly pleasurable state, but it is doomed to be temporary, as proven by the fact that eating two such steaks would produce pain. Pleasure reaches its limit surprisingly fast, and this is where flow should enter in, as a way to obtain gratifications that are less volatile and longer lasting than subjective feelings (Seligman, 2002, p. 119). From https://www.makingthemodernworld.org.uk/
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, & Csikzsentmihalyi, Isabella Selega (Eds.). (1988). Optimal Experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York, NY: Free Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, & Csikzsentmihalyi, Isabella Selega (Eds.). (2006).
A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology (Series in Positive Psychology). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Picture credit: Yoga asana by martinl / SXC.hu