Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Summary and Notes

flow summary

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

Rating: 8/10

Related: Finding Flow, Creativity, Deep Work, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Rise of Superman

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Flow Short Summary

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi takes on the problem of how to live a happier life. A meaningful life is one where the person spends his time in a state of optimal experience called Flow. To live a great life, all your goals must be unified in a way that produces the maximum amount of flow. A hard read but one that will challenge your beliefs on happiness.

Flow Summary

People often end up feeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.

How can we make sure that our life is worth living?

By improving our experiences. 

“Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself.” 

Happiness is not a constant state of mind. It must be cultivated and defended.

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.

These experiences are universal to all cultures and time periods. The author defines them as Flow experiences.

Learning how to transform any task into a flow experience will be the key to unlock long lasting happiness.

But what is Flow?

What Is Flow?

“The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost.”

Flow is when you’re so invested in a project that you lose track of time. When you feel “in the zone”.

To achieve flow, you need 3 things:

  1. Realistic goals
  2. Your skills match the opportunities for action
  3. Complete focus is on the activity

Flow happens when your skill matches the difficulty of the task. If the task is too difficult, you will feel anxious and won’t be able to experience flow. But when skills are much higher than the challenge, you will feel bored.

flow summary flow state

But you cannot experience flow without investing your attention.

Attention is what selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available.

Without full attention, you cannot absorb the information you need to continue “in the zone”.

The 5 Principles to Transform Any Activity into Flow

  1. Define the goals of the activity. Create a major goal and as many subgoals as needed
  2. Find ways to measure progress. Create mechanisms to track your progress
  3. Concentrate on the task at hand. Dedicate your full attention to the task. No multitasking is allowed 
  4. Develop the skills needed to make progress. Make an effort to improve every skill required
  5. Keep raising the stakes. Once you achieve your goals, go back to step 1 and create even bolder goals

The more an activity looks like a game, the more enjoyable it becomes.

Making Flow the Norm

Flow can be experienced in almost every setting. To maximize the time spent in flow, you must take the principles of flow and apply to all your life.

And to do that, you must develop an “Autotelic Personality”.

“Autotelic”: from Greek, auto (self) + telos (goal)

An Autotelic Person finds his objectives within. For him, potential threats are transformed into enjoyable challenges. He is never bored or anxious and it is always involved with what goes on in the moment.

By having an autotelic self, you can enjoy life even when circumstances are brutish and nasty.

To become an Autotelic Person, you need to:

  1. Set better goals. The best ones are intrinsic goals
  2. Become immersed in the activity. Learn how to achieve a state of flow
  3. Pay attention to what is happening. Concentrate at will and for long periods of time
  4. Enjoy the immediate experience. Take the most out of each experience

Applying Flow to Your Work

Work is one of the best environments for flow.

Surprisingly, work produces more flow experiences than leisure time. In research done by Csikszentmihalyi, people signaled experiencing flow 54% of the time at work. The number for leisure was much lower at 18%.

The reason is simple:

Work is structured like a game, whereas most leisure activities are not. 

“[People at work] feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied.”

But when asked, most people said that they would prefer to work less and have more free time.

Why is that?

According to the author, this happens because people feel that they are investing attention against their will.

Work can be hard, boring, and repetitive. Yet, you have the ability to transform work into complex activities. By recognizing opportunities for action and to develop skills, you can transform your work into something more enjoyable.

For example:

A farmer can turn boring activities like feeding the animals into an opportunity to get to know them better. This creates a layer of complexity that makes the task far more enjoyable.

Another alternative is to change the job itself. The more a job inherently resembles a game—with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback—the more enjoyable it will be.

“The sooner we realize that the quality of the work experience can be transformed at will, the sooner we can improve this enormously important dimension of life.”

Creating Flow Out of Chaos

On the path to achieve happiness, tragedies are inevitable. To overcome the difficulties you will need to learn how to shift your attention to what really matters.

A major catastrophe can either:

  • Destroy the self and its ambitions
  • Provide a new and clear goal: to overcome the new challenges

Focus your attention on the new opportunities and you are likely to succeed. But if you withdraw into yourself and deny what has happened, you will not be able to recover.

You have the ability to transform a terrible situation into a new flow activity. By taking control, you will be able to enjoy the journey and emerge on the other side stronger.

To transform tragedies into new flow opportunities you need: 

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance. Face the challenges believing you are able to change the outcome. But recognize you might not succeed because of factors outside your control
  2. To focus your attention on the world. Shift your attention away from yourself so you won’t focus on your internal struggles. And focusing on the external allows you to find a better way to adapt to the problem
  3. To discover new solutions. Don’t focus your attention on the new obstacles to achieve your goals. Evaluate the problem more broadly. Take the time to explore alternative goals that are more appropriate for the time being

How to Live with Flow 

Even the most successful career, the most rewarding family relationship eventually runs dry. 

Sooner or later involvement in work must be reduced. 

To approach optimal experience as closely as is humanly possible, a last step in the control of consciousness is necessary.

What this involves is turning all life into a unified flow experience. 

“If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together—and each activity will “make sense” in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life.”

“The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual’s purpose merges with the universal flow.”