Flow: The Psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Never before has the focus been so much on happiness and being in the present than in the past years since the Covid19 pandemic. People have realized that worrying about the unknown is futile and that being in the present and experiencing it fully is something that leads to long lasting happiness



Author : Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Originally Published : 2008
Publication :: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Pages : 336
Genre(s) :-
Non-Fiction, Self Help, Psychology

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is considered as the pioneer in what came to be known the world over as the ‘Flow’ state when one is at peak productivity and mentally focused. Born in a Hungarian family, Mihaly’s father, who was a career diplomat, left the Hungarian regime and settled in Rome. A young Mihaly’s exposure to Carl Jung resulted in his lifelong fascination for psychology. He calls the positive aspects of human experience- joy, creativity and the process of total absorption in whatever you do as a state of ‘Flow’. What he calls his ‘discovery’ is the fact that happiness is not something that results after we achieve something (wealth, health, success) but an interpretation which we must develop and defended consciously by every person. He quotes Viktor Frankl when he said that happiness is not something to pursue but something that ensues as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.

The universe is not designed keeping in mind the comforts of man, it is just indifferent. The question that begs itself is that in spite of achieving so much in terms of technological and materialistic comforts, why is it then that humans in general never feel ‘really happy’. That craving for more, for something better is always bogging down whatever has been achieved. To add to misery, when humans realize mortality, they feel cheated, led down and wonder when they would have all the good times they had dreamed of. That’s when it’s important to reclaim your experiences beyond the rewards that the society gives upon following its social dictats.

The Flow state

Upon speaking to several people who could focus their attention, Mihaly found that they experienced a feeling of floating, or flowing seamlessly without distraction, without any plausible threat or fear of any kind. That enabled them to concentrate better on the work or task at hand and enjoy it better. Resultantly, the outcomes also were better. Mihaly shows that this positive state where a person is fully conscious and in the moment, can be controlled and not just left for chance. It could be at work, enjoying nature, just being still and calm, cooking, reading or even loving someone. Often, we do something to achieve a ‘goal’ that is built within it. It could be earning money, praise, love or simply to feel accomplished. Rather, if we do any task and just enjoy doing it without bothering as much for the outcome to the best of our abilities, it results in a better outcome. That is why we find immense enjoyment in activities like cruising, hiking, sports, singing, dancing because we immerse ourselves in it, without the pressure of the outcome. Why can’t we behave similarly in our daily work?

The Autotelic experience

This is an interesting aspect, one that involves an intrinsic goal, an end or objective in itself. Like dance, which is not done to achieve something but to enjoy. The sportsperson’s competition is not with others but to outperform himself. That drives him to work harder. Human beings can experience ‘flow’ in all activities- bodily functions, sexual pleasures, senses, in music and dance, in sports and hobbies, in food, thoughts, in play of words as also in the daily chores. Mihaly speaks about ancient practices like tribes that shift the entire location to another place to experience new challenges, or the practice of Yoga and meditation that allows one to focus on the breath and the body in the now, as a means of achieving ‘flow’.

Key takeaways

  1. Be aware of the present, focusing on the moment and not bothering about the chaos that comes with rewards and outcomes.
  2. Work that one does skilfully is inherently enjoyable.
  3. Most people experience ‘flow’ states in doing something that they love and enjoy, like sports, music or leisure activities.
  4. Being self-driven, doing things for the joy of it rather than for how they will turn out, makes the result much better.
  5. Expectations, both of your own and that of others, weighs heavily on us and affects our performance and happiness.
  6. Overcoming psychic entropy leads to optimal experience by investing one’s psychic energies into goals set themselves.

Why I recommend this book

Amidst all the chaos of today’s life, both personal and professional, most of us have forgotten to be happy by ourselves. We place happiness as an outcome of something and not something that is at the core of whatever we do irrespective of the outcome. That puts tremendous pressure on us to ‘be happy’ and we end up really sad and depressed. Being in Flow state enables us to enjoy every moment independently. It channelizes our psychic energies towards a joyful pursuit and enables us to be free from stress. Read this book if you find yourself constantly worrying about other people, society, experience work pressure, are extremely competitive and yearn for materialistic pleasures but end up drained.

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