I came to Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, thinking that I already knew what it was.
A fairly dense, though canonical and oft-cited academic work on the psychology of the “flow state”: that rare, almost reverent state of creativity in which the practitioner is totally immersed in what they’re doing.
In this “flow state,” as I understood it, skills are perfectly matched with challenges, and a kind of elevated consciousness is achieved that borders on transcendence. I know this state intuitively; it’s what I often experience when “in the zone,” creatively speaking.
After reading the book, I realised that it covers a lot more.
The concept of flow was first introduced to me by my PhD supervisor. My PhD investigated the provocative and transformative potential of performance, and I was interested in the transformation possible in the liminal state of performance. Flow, my supervisor pointed out, can be seen as analogous to this liminal state; and even a transformation in itself.
As a PhD student with a pile of books and readings to plod through, I skimmed Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, Flow, cherry-picking what I needed to make my point, but never really had the time to immerse myself in the text.
Since then, the concept has appeared to me in a variety of contexts. Books and articles reference the idea of flow state as crucial to creativity. It’s taken me awhile to work my way back to it – 16 years after that first introduction, in fact – but the takeaways from it still resonate.
About the book
Flow examines happiness: a topic of which there has been much interest in our modern, busy lives. Specifically, though, it looks at creating happiness via the control of consciousness, and asserts that “the optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness.”
This “order” occurs when someone focuses their energy on realistic goals that match their skills. Pursuing these goals requires focussing on the task, and in the process, temporarily forgetting everything else. There is an enjoyment in this single-minded focus, in the state of having skills that challenge, but are equally matched to, the task at hand.
I get this. One of the times I’ve experienced flow is when painting; an art form I only started dabbling in a couple of years ago. Though I am a novice (and the quality of my paintings reflect that), painting for two hours a week in class completely absorbed me. I felt joy and peace wash over me, as I was so occupied with the microcosm of paint transferring to canvas that my world narrowed to just that.
The idea that happiness comes from knowing and controlling consciousness isn’t new (for example, Aristotle’s “know thyself”). So why aren’t we better at it? Well, according to the book, by its very nature it’s something that each individual needs to work through: it is only through responding to life’s experiences that we can discover ourselves.
The “flow experience” is a state in which our experience is optimal, because attention can be completely focussed on achieving goals. In the interviews that form the basis of the book’s research, this optimal experience was described as “floating,” or being “carried on by the flow.” If flow state is attained, the result is more strength and confidence, because psychic energy has been invested successfully in chosen.
This experience of being “in the zone” was depicted in the Pixar film Soul as floating in a liminal, metaphysical realm:
1. There are concrete strategies to improve the enjoyment of life.
In the book, Csikszentmihalyi outlines the elements of enjoyment:
- Engaging in a challenging activity that requires skill, and our skills are matched to the task. These activities can include things like reading and socialising: it does not only apply to “hard” skills.
- The merging of action and awareness: concentrating on what we’re doing and being completely absorbed.
- Clear goals: these vary depending on the type of activity.
- Feedback: this varies depending on the type of activity.
- Concentration on the task at hand: a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustration of everyday life. Loss of memory of anything outside the task. (This one reminded me of “Dr Footlights” – the ability of stage footlights to cure any ailment the actor was experiencing before being on stage.)
- The paradox of control: you have control over your actions, but are not worried about losing control. Enjoyment comes not from being in control but in the sense of exercising control.
- The loss of self-consciousness. Yet, paradoxically, the sense of self emerges stronger after flow experience. The self is not threatened, and the lack of self-consciousness means that there is no opportunity for self-reflection until afterwards.
- The transformation of time: time can both slow down and speed up, and freedom from time is often part of the enjoyment of flow.
To achieve enjoyment, and improve the quality of life, he posits two strategies:
- Make external conditions match goals (For instance, get richer in order to be happier. However, this strategy alone is not enough for happiness. Getting richer might help, but it will be incomplete unless you can improve the quality of experience).
- Change how we experience external conditions to make them better fit our goals.
2. Flow activities are good, but it’s better to have a flow personality.
Flow activities are autotelic: they are self-contained activities where the doing itself is the reward. It’s also important to have an autotelic personality: a “non self-conscious individualism” that drives you to do your best in all circumstances, but without concerns for primarily advancing your own interests. In part, this personality is biological, but it can be developed.
There’s a link between the body and flow, which also has connections to creative pursuits that use the body like dance, music, and yoga.
Writing is an example of a flow activity that creates order out of the chaos of the mind:
3. Lifelong learning is great, but it doesn’t make you a professional.
I enjoyed Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on amateurs versus professionals.
He bemoans the fact that “amateur” and “dilettante” have become derogatory terms, when “amateur” is from the Latin amare, “to love,” and “dilettante” from the Latin delectare, “the find delight in.” So both of these words originally referred to people who undertook things just out of the enjoyment of doing them.
For instance, he notes that the point of being an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals, but to enjoy the challenge of extending mental skills and creating order in consciousness. If amateurs lose sight of this, and use knowledge to bolster ego, it can become problematic.
It strikes me how relevant this idea is, even 30 years after the book’s publication. We are living in a time in which facts and the truth are continuously called into question. The idea that there is a critical lack of the baseline skills of skepticism and reciprocal criticism contributing to this is fascinating.
Csikszentmihalyi also discusses the importance of lifelong learning. People who give up on learning after they leave school will miss out on developing a “personally meaningful sense of what one’s experience is all about.” Their thinking will be influenced by newspaper editorials, by neighbours, and so on. Their opinions will be at the mercy of others.
Serendipitously, right after reading Flow I read Margaret Talbot’s article in The New Yorker about having a beginner’s mindset. Lifelong learning is about achieving competence, not mastery.
4. People with autotelic personalities can make the best of any situation.
Csikszentmihalyi stresses the importance of having the ability to take neutral or destructive events in life and turn them into positives. Without this ability, we would be constantly suffering. Such transformational skill is developed by late adolescence, and is a sign of an “autotelic mind.”
With an autotelic mind, there are three steps to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow situation:
- Unselfconscious self-assurance: this is confidence without ego, a certain trust in yourself and your place in the world.
- Focussing attention on the world, rather than on the self: through techniques such as mindfulness, and being open to what your surroundings are telling you.
- The discovery of new solutions: by focussing on the obstacle and moving it out of the way, or by focussing on the entire situation and discover alternative solutions.
The “autotelic self” translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, through transforming them into flow activities. It is possible to develop an autotelic self through:
- Setting goals;
- Becoming immersed in the activity;
- Paying attention to what is happening; and
- Learning to enjoy immediate experience.
Generally, I’d say I’ve been lucky to have fallen into much of what constitutes an “autotelic personality.” I am generally optimistic, and can usually find the good side of a situation. While this trait has led to being called a “Pollyanna,” it’s interesting to think about it in the context of flow.
As an autotelic personality, I recognise that flow state is essential to my creativity. When life disrupts my flow, that is also disrupting my personality and my creativity.
5. Flow is more than just the feeling of losing yourself in an activity. It also has implications for the meaning of life.
We can use flow to create meaning in our lives. “The meaning of life is meaning.”
This book is so much deeper and more complex than I could possibly absorb in one reading (especially as that reading has to come in small stolen moments between homeschooling and work). I look forward to returning to it someday!