Flow by Mihaly Csiksznetmihalyi

Happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person. It is an active process.

1. Flow

Mihaly has a name for optimal experience: Flow. This sounds like Hecht’s happy life.

I open outlook and 80 emails load into my inbox. Before I can read them, S calls to ask about a patch that has stalled testing. That’s not a problem, I’ll just talk to the tester to baby this patch through.  Before I can do that, G interrupts to ask if I know anything about a SIR, F2UAT00… is it really a fix or a clarification? If we have to fix it, how long will we take? P also has a question about this product – the document says one thing, but it is behaving another way, which is right? When I get back at my seat, I scan quickly through each email and clear it. Each email is deleted, filed away, or turned into a to-do item. As I whittle through my inbox, I get a clearer picture of the situation – what has happened, what needs to be done. Time flows quickly. I get things done.

Elements of flow:

  1. Challenging Activity
  2. An activity has challenges in it. We use our skills to meet these challenges. Flow occurs when challenge and skill are closely matched.

  3. Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback
  4. People like to get better at things. When we have clear goals, we know what we are aiming for. When we have immediate feedback, we know whether we are improving or not. With such conditions, it becomes easier to be immersed in the activity.

    The problem with writing is that there are no clear goals, no immediate feedback. The writer then has to develop his own sense of what is good and bad. He must understand why this writer’s style appeals to him, why that sentence leaves him cold.

  5. Merging of Action and Awareness.
  6. When all of your skills are needed to cope with a challenge, your concentration is totally focused. As a result,

    a)      You lose your sense of self
    b)      The activity becomes spontaneous.
    c)       Problems, real or imagined, are momentarily forgotten.
    d)      The perception of time is transformed.

  7. Paradox of control.
  8. People enjoy exercising control in difficult situations. The activity offers a realm where the person is adept and the sense of chaos present in everyday life is minimized.

    When we experience flow, we replace boredom with enjoyment; helplessness, with control. We find joy in the present instead of putting up with the drudgery of life for some distant future happiness.

2. Flow in the Workplace.

Both the worker and the job help create flow. The worker should recognize opportunities for action, develop skills and focus on the activity. The job should be structured to create clear goals and provide immediate feedback.

Mihaly found that most people experienced flow at work, but yet complained that they would rather be doing something else. He explained that people disregard their positive experiences at work because of cultural expectations that we shouldn’t enjoy our work.  People also treat a job as something that they do against their will and that does not align with their goals. Hence they tend to discount their positive job experiences.

I hear the common refrain, “What will you do when you retire, watch TV all day?” Work provides a structured activity that a person can do to experience flow. It is hard to experience flow at leisure because a person needs the discipline to engage in stimulating activities instead of wasting it in passive boredom.

3. Flow and Community

I have always been puzzled by people who contribute to the community through philanthropy, politics or by volunteering their time for social causes, etc. Mihaly provides an explanation for such behavior.

Flow occurs when challenge and skill are finely balanced. Too much skill relative to challenge causes boredom. Too much challenge, and one becomes frustrated and stressed. Flow occurs in the golden ratio between challenge and skill. However, this does not last for long, and the individual soon has to find greater challenges to conquer to keep in flow.

Contributing to the well being of the many presents a more complex goal than optimizing the well being of just oneself, or one’s family. Hence, philanthropy, a natural consequence of individuals seeking flow by seeking more complex challenges.

4. The Making of Meaning

It is not enough to experience flow. We want meaning in our lives. For that, we need purpose, resolution and harmony.


Purpose is when we have a big enough goal to direct our attention for a lifetime.

A culture can provide purpose. A culture can be sensate or ideational. A sensate culture emphasizes the senses while an ideational culture emphasizes the nonmaterial and the abstract. In a sensate culture, the body would be cultivated for health and pleasure, while in an ideational culture, the body would be cultivated as a symbol of some abstract principle. An idealistic culture combines both approaches.

Another model of purpose describes the individual’s development. I call it the S model. An individual is first concerned with his self and how he maximizes comfort and pleasure. In the next stage he looks outwards to embrace the values of family, religion and society. Next, he turns inwards again to critically examine these group values and the individual values he holds. Finally, he turns outwards again.

Forging resolve

It is not enough to have a goal, we must also achieve them. However, it is too tempting to change goals when the pursuit of one becomes too hard. Doing so too many times creates a fractured life devoid of meaning.

There are two ways to combat this, action or thought.

In a life of action, one finds a goal so compelling, there is little room or time for self doubt. One danger is that this goal fizzles out during mid life. It is therefore also important to reflect. A life of thought advocates contemplation. First know yourself before finding your calling. Action without reflection is blind, reflection without action, impotent. We need to combine both. This is the ideal which Mishima represents for me.


When everything in your life takes you closer to your goal, you have harmony. There is a theme to your life.

A life theme can be discovered or accepted. An accepted life theme is something which you do because someone told you to do it. A discovered life theme involves personal struggle to define your meaning. This involves self doubt when you are going one way and everyone else is going theirs.


3 thoughts on “Flow by Mihaly Csiksznetmihalyi

  1. I like how Mihaly starts with the conditions of flow, then generalizes and proposes flow as something that a culture or workplace should create, and in the last chapter, he sums up by saying that we should turn life into one single flow experience. I always like to see how something relates to the big picture.

    The various chapters on flow in the different areas of life got a bit draggy for me. But still, great read.

  2. Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life – The Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine « words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s