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BOOK REVIEW: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Recently, I read and reviewed Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, which is about how extreme athletes use a mental state called “the flow” to pull off some miraculous feats (e.g. “hanging righteous air” to use an appropriate term of art.) That book got me intrigued about the flow, and wanting to learn more. The logical next read was the book by the man considered the godfather of flow, the man who coined the term, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is a Professor of Psychology at the Claremont Graduate University and formerly of the University of Chicago.

A Note on Editions: The book I read is the 2013 edition of a book that was first published in 1990. The two editions have different subtitles. The 1990 edition was entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and the 2013 edition is Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. It’s not hard to imagine what happened. The 1990 version was titled to appeal to scholars, and the former title both has more syllables and suggests that one might be able to use LaGrangian Methods (the calculus of constrained optimization) to maximize bliss—which would be double bliss for an academic. As Csikszentmihalyi’s work attracted widespread attention, there was a need for a title that didn’t sound painfully dull. To be fair, the word “happiness” has gained some purchase in scholarly literature in recent years, but in 1990 saying one was studying “happiness” would be akin to saying one would study the “cuddliness quotient” of kittens (actually the latter, having the word “quotient” in it, would test better with department chairs and funders.)

Flow is a state in which one’s entire mind and body is devoted to overcoming a challenge that is intrinsically rewarding. There’s a lot packed into that definition. First, the task must be difficult but within the skill-level of the individual. If it’s too easy, it’s too boring for flow. If it’s far too challenging relative to one’s skill, it may become frustrating before one can build enough skill to achieve it. Flow states can be achieved via many different kinds of tasks, and the middle chapters of the book are devoted to different types of flow-inducing events. Chapters 5 through 8 address, respectively: physical activities like yoga and the martial arts, mental activities like poetry, word play, and chess, work activities, and solitude and social activities.

Second, tasks must usually be autotelic, or intrinsically rewarding. If the only reason that one is doing an activity is for a paycheck, to stave off nagging, or to attract attention, one will be unlikely to find the flow. That doesn’t mean that one can’t receive external rewards, but the activity has to have something intrinsic that keeps one at it. Csikszentmihalyi’s approach was to interview people to access how happy they were, and what activities allowed them to achieve said happiness. He shares many anecdotes about individuals who were blissful, including people who derived happiness from work activities such as factory work, work that most people would find unpleasant and only tolerable to earn a living. Of course, these happy individuals didn’t just do the job in the manner of the poor schlubs who hated their work-life. Instead, they found ways to make the work challenging and, in doing so, they often made themselves indispensable and gained not only job security but also the respect and admiration of others. What is key is that one’s mindset determines all of this, and the book focuses on the notion of controlling one’s inner life to achieve happiness via the flow.

Third, flow is not achieved in a distracted state; all of one’s being has to be surrendered to the act at hand. Multi-tasking is not conducive to the flow.

The ability to override one’s evolutionarily-programmed instincts is key to being able to obtain a flow state. One must be able to stay on task and devote one’s consciousness to the action at hand. This is the central theme in chapter 2, entitled “The Anatomy of Consciousness.” The book also speaks to a subject that I’m currently interested in, which is how states of mind and body that have been known since ancient times, but whose mechanism of action weren’t well-understood, are explained in the world of modern science. Csikszentmihalyi refers to yogis and Taoist masters as he describes the flow. Flow state isn’t new; it’s just newly put in the context of science, rather than mythology.

I enjoyed this book and found the chapter on the flow in movement and bodily activities particularly educational. Csikszentmihalyi has written a few related books on creativity and the flow applied specifically to sport. I would like to learn more about the neuro-anatomy and neurochemistry of the flow, as this book doesn’t delve into the hard science of the flow, and much of this science has occurred since the time this book was first published anyway.

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