Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly examines the psychology of the “flow” state of mind to help anyone get more from life while getting more done. The flow state is an all-consuming state of sustained focus, creativity, and contentment, critical to high achievement and enjoyment in life. Flow is a concept of being lost in a deeply enjoyable activity. It’s that feeling of contentment you experience when you are so caught up in and concentrated on an activity.
Flow is becoming an increasingly researched idea, due to its relatedness to happiness. In “Flow”, Mihaly shows how, through focusing on increasing flow, you can achieve a more meaningful existence. The author uses research from interviews with a wide range of people from all walks of life who regularly enter the “flow” state to offer actionable tips to help anyone get more from life but tapping into their “flow”.
My key Takeaways from “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
To lead a happy successful life you just have to go with the flow. But what does 'flow' mean and how do you go with it?!
Takeaway #1: Hiding From A Meaningless World
Have you ever found yourself feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, pondering the meaning of your life? the grand scheme of things, your life is rather insignificant and perhaps pointless? It's not a nice feeling which is why most people use coping mechanisms such as wealth, fame, luxury, religion, and even political ideology to give their life a sense of order and meaning. But by doing this we abandon our critical faculties and soon find that the coping mechanism cannot satisfy us.
Don't blame yourself, it's human nature to gravitate towards basic (shortlived) pleasure rather than the more rewarding yet more challenging feeling of enjoyment. What's the difference? Pleasure is much like the sensation of hunger and tiredness and must be fulfilled in order to restore ourselves just as we would by eating or sleeping - many of us find pleasure in crashing down in front of the TV after work for example or eating candy. Enjoyment meanwhile, forces us stretch ourselves by using concentration and skills to transcend our believed limitations, this can be as simple as trying out a new recipe or as hard as winning an Olympic gold medal.
Takeaway #2: Getting In The Zone
When you're 'in the zone', concentrating on an activity or task that has a clear goal and that balances new skills with challenges whilst giving you immediate feedback so that you feel in control (even if facing an element of danger), you're experiencing enjoyment. When in this 'zone' you'll often forget about any anxiety, lack of self confidence, worries, or problems you had.
Getting and staying in the zone can be tricky though as you don't want the task to be too difficult but you also don't want it to be too easy. This is why developing new skills that interest you require you to face challenges and should be tied to rewards (or punishments) so that you can expand your own personal limits. However, the rewards should not be based on power or money but about feeling good, looking after yourself, giving yourself what you need.
Sports are a great way to gain focused attention and experience flow but we can also achieve this when we put our mind to work whether by playing a game, doing a crossword, jigsaw puzzle, or learning a language. You can also get absorbed and in flow when you start to research a subject that truly interests you such as Picasso or The Blitz or when you work on inventing or creating something.
If you allow it to, your day job can enter the class of enjoyment too, you just need to treat that mundane job as a game by finding new challenges, learning all that you can and rewarding yourself along the way.
Takeaway #3: Finding Your Purpose
So, to find purpose in life you first need to identify a clear goal that captivates you fully whilst providing increasingly complex challenges. In order to keep heading towards your goal you will need strong willpower and the ability to disregard other's opinions of your life goal. Feeling inspired? Don't be an 'armchair activist', stop planning start doing as you get into flow!
Key Points from Flow
- Flow is the sensation you experience when you are totally immersed in an activity. It stimulates enjoyment, rather than pleasure. You’re in flow because you’re using both actions and awareness.
- To seek fulfillment, we often turn to religion, wealth and fame. We often choose immediate reward over delayed gratification. In these circumstances, we experience pleasure over enjoyment. Pleasure is easy to achieve but short-lived, whereas enjoyment is challenging, it involves us testing our limits. Enjoyment can help us achieve our wildest dreams.
- Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with our capacity to act.
- Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue... It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.
- It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we experience true joy
- The best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments in our lives usually occur when our body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
- Optimal experience is something that we allow to happen. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art
- When we push ourselves slightly out of our comfort zone, like situations in which we need to haggle, we push the limits of our capabilities and can realize our potential. However, we want to make sure our challenges are not completely out of our comfort zone, because when we strive for too much too soon, we will most likely not be able to experience flow and integrate what we experience
- Ensure your challenges are in line with your passions and values, so they provide intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. Setting yourself intrinsic rewards can mean greater enjoyment and an increased state of fulfillment. At work, for example, it’s about setting meaningful tasks for yourself, rather than relying on being given rewards by your boss or customers
- Mindfulness unlocks our sensory, analogic, and analytic levels. Practicing mindfulness means paying total attention to the present, often to your surroundings. By completely immersing ourselves in our environment, we forget about worries crowding our mind from the past and future.
- We can also enter the “flow state” through sports and games, including those that test our memory and language capabilities.
- We need both alone time and time with those that have a nurturing, supportive impact on our lives. Having people that are differentiated yet integrated. We need to be part of like-minded communities to allow us opportunities for growth.
- We are called to exercise our expressive as well as instrumental side through good friendships, as expression leads to more fulfilling emotions.
- To overcome obstacles, it would be best if we: let go of our ego, be mindful of our environment, and use obstacles to our advantage.
- To find meaning, we want to identify our ultimate goal and act on it. Our goals should align with each other, so they don’t combat each other when we pursue them.
Favorite Quotes from Flow
"The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself… If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention."
If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it.
"Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done... We create ourselves by how we use this energy."
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Chapter 1: Happiness Revisited
Chapter 2: The Anatomy of Consciousness
Chapter 3: Enjoyment and the Quality of Life
Chapter 4: The Conditions of Flow
Chapter 5: The Body in Flow
Chapter 6: The Flow of Thought
Chapter 7: Work as Flow
Chapter 8: Enjoying Solitude and Other People
Chapter 9: Cheating Chaos
Chapter 10: The Making of Meaning
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Editor and Founder
Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating the next generation of leaders to their true potential.