Book: Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Finding Flow - CoverOne of the books I read (re-read, actually) in the last two weeks was Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Finding Flow is part psychology study material and part self-help guide. It proposes to help us reclaim ownership of our lives. Based on research of over thousands of individuals, Finding Flow contends that we often walk through our days unaware and out of touch with our emotional lives. People are happiest when they are most absorbed in their actions, a state the author terms as ‘flow.’ We experience ‘flow’ when we work towards clear goals that provide a slight stretch to our existing skills. Constant feedback on our progress also enables flow. So, to be happy we need to constantly be absorbed in such situations.

TitleFinding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Author(s)Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Initially Published In1997
PublisherBasic Books
Formats AvailableHardcover, Paperback, Kindle

Csikszentmihalyi eloquently argues that living fully in the here and now requires that one heed the lessons of the past.

— The New York Times Book Review

Flow is defined as the sense of effortless action people feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives.  Like athletes ‘in the zone’, or musicians in ‘aesthetic rapture’, or religious mystics in ‘ecstasy’.

The author has used data collected over many years and analysis from a study using the ESM. Briefly, the ESM (Experience Sampling Method) is a research procedure for studying what people do, feel, and think during their daily lives. Participating individuals provide information when prompted (randomly) during their waking hours. They provide information related to the activity they are currently engaged in (e.g., working, studying, housework, eating, socializing, hobby, etc.) and their feelings / psychological states (related to happiness, motivation, concentration and flow). Using the data collected (mainly US) over several years, the analysis was used to understand how people spend their time, how they feel, and figure out co-relations between the activities, demographics and their psychological states.

Here are some of the findings/ conclusions of the research:

  • In developed societies, people spend roughly one-third  of their  waking life in productive activities (working, studying, etc.); one-third in maintenance activities (driving, housework, eating, grooming); one-third in leisure (media, hobbies, sports, talking, socializing, idling, resting). This ratio has not significantly changed over many decades.
  • For many people ‘flow’ is highest while doing active hobbies and sports. And people often experience ‘flow’ while doing  work / study. People rarely experience ‘flow’ during maintenance activities (though they may experience happiness/ relaxation while eating, idling and resting).
  • Beyond a point, money/ wealth does not increase a state of fulfillment.
  • We are in a state of ‘flow’ when we are really engaged in something – we can lose track of time in such situations.
  • We will focus attention on something that is interesting to us. And if we focus attention on anything, it is likely that we will become interested in it
  • Many of the things we find interesting are not universally so. Things are interesting because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.
  • We cannot feel fulfilled if we are only self-centered and do not consider other people.
  • Activities that enable ‘flow’ usually have a combination of the following characteristics:
    • You are interested in the activity per se.
    • You set clear goals for the activity.
    • You can see how the activity is useful to larger goals not just self-centered goals. These could be customers, family, society, country, city, locality, employees, colleagues, etc.
    • You can see how the activity is useful for the future.
  • Intrinsic motivation to do an activity is the better than extrinsic motivation. However, extrinsic motivation is far better than doing things by ‘default’.
  • ‘Abolishing all desire’ is not the solution. Because abolishing all desire is itself a goal, and it is tremendously difficult and ambitious.
  • Being ‘connected’ with others makes a lot of difference to our psychological well-being.
  • Active leisure improves our psychological state. So, playing chess is better than watching a cricket match on the TV.

Key actionable take-away points for me are:

  • Try and engage in activities (work, hobbies, leisure) that use my skills and also challenge and extend my capability. I need to set clear goals and also enjoy the activity in itself.
    For example, I may set a goal to run 5 km every day  @ 10 kmph, but I should also enjoy the act of running, not just achieving the goal.
  • Make maintenance (boring, tedious, regular, transactional) activities more challenging. One way is continuously looking at ways to optimize or eliminate or sub-contract the maintenance activities.
    For example, as the traffic in my city has become unmanageable and parking gets more painful, I do not drive during work-days, but use a combination of taxis and auto-rikshaws. I do other possible maintenance activities while being driven – such as checking and answering SMSs, making phone calls and doing breathing exercises.
  • Engage in active leisure activities, instead of passive leisure activities.
    For example, play sport instead of watching TV, read a stimulating book instead of mindless thrillers / romantic novels, watch a more stimulating TV program instead of a numbing program, solve puzzles/ Sudoku/ Crossword.
  • Ensure social interactions with different types of people. Build strong relationships. If work and hobbies do not naturally require interaction with others, and you live alone, then find ways to interact and collaborate with others.

Here are some quotes from the book:

  • “…if we don’t take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency.”
  • “The sacred books of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and the Vedas are the best repositories of the ideas that mattered to our ancestors, and to ignore them would be an act of childish conceit. But it is equally naive to believe that whatever was written down in the past contains an absolute truth that lasts forever.”
  • “As many a thinker since Aristotle has said, everything we do is ultimately aimed at experiencing happiness.”
  • “What we call thinking is also a process by whereby psychic energy gets ordered.”
  • “But shortcuts are dangerous; we cannot delude ourselves that our knowledge is further along than it actually is.”
  • “It was found that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claim to have, while the opposite trend was found for watching television.”
  • “To be trusted in a position of leadership, it helps to advance other people’s goals as well as one’s own.”
  • “It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.”

What I liked about the book is that it avoids typical cliches like “be positive”, “develop an attitude of gratitude”, nor does it advise constant, self-indulgent massages, spiritual activities, and meditations for finding fulfillment. It advises finding activities that are absorbing and engaging while also challenging one’s ability.

It is actually a thin book (181 pages), but slow to read and absorb. Keep something handy to take notes (highlighter or sticky notes, notebook, etc.). The format (print or eBook) is not likely to make a difference.

A brilliant book. And pretty useful too.

About the author

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high”) is a professor at Claremont Graduate University and former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. His other books include bestseller Flow, Creativity and The Evolving Self.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a genius for illuminating phenomena that perplex most behavioral scientists.In this brilliant synthesis, he shows how all of us can enhance our work, our play, our lives.

— Howard Gardner, author of Extraordinary Minds

You can also view this TEDx video where the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about Flow in his own inimitable manner (uploaded on youtube):

If the clip does not load click here

If you want to make your life a bit more fulfilling, do read Finding Flow!

Your comments are welcome!


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8 thoughts on “Book: Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi”

  1. You seem to have captured the entire essence of the book in this inspired review. I can relate everything here to my day to day experiences and feelings.

    Especially days I feel less than ecstatic are those, I now realize, are
    when there is no flow. Or the flow is out of balance. More maintenance in the mix.

    When in flow, things always seem to go just right. When not, Murphy takes over.

    I know of people who never seem to discover flow and hence are grumpy most of the times. If you associate with them for some time, you run the risk of crippling your flow.

    The book helps give expression to feelings. And helps create awareness for one’s state at a given point in time.

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