This is a comprehensive summary of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
Worksheet: Download the interactive sheet for taking notes.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A masterpiece by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where, through sharing observations from studies and interviews conducted over a long period of time, he aims to explain under what circumstances our minds experience what he calls optimal experience. While the author with a ridiculously hard-to-spell last name talks mainly about how to direct our attention towards one thing so we can better concentrate (i.e. enter the flow state) the main outcome he wants for his readers is for them to achieve complete domination over their consciousness.
The Core Idea:
Money, fame, stuff, these things can’t bring us lasting joy. The only way we can convince our minds that we’re actually enjoying life is when we’re doing worthwhile voluntary work that’s difficult but not impossible. The flow state which the author promotes throughout the book can be described as a mysterious-like condition where you’re able to fully immerse in the work you do – and completely ignore everything else – which immediately makes the present more enjoyable.
- To make the present feel more enjoyable, we need to find purpose even in the most boring daily tasks.
- What you pay attention to shapes who you are and who you’ll become.
- Becoming world-class in any field happens when you gradually increase the difficulty.
6 Key Lessons from Flow:
- Lesson #1: Don’t Blindly Obey The Social Norms. Develop Your Own Set of Goals
- Lesson #2: To find Real Joy We Need To Learn To Live Now
- Lesson #3: Free Your Mind To Focus Better
- Lesson #4: To Enter The Flow State, You Need To Exercise Control
- Lesson #5: Enjoyment Has Eight Major Components
- Lesson #6: When Pursuing Flow You Develop New Skills and You Grow
Lesson #1: Don’t Blindly Obey The Social Norms. Develop Your Own Set of Goals
Society can only advance if we work together. But since people are primarily narcissistic and worry about their own existence, to force us into playing a co-op game, the elders, from the dawn of time were always enforcing some sort of norms. That’s why things like death by burning and hagging were legal punishments for years.
These days you won’t see a guillotine in front of the town hall but there are other systems in place: religion and consumerism.
Everything in our current culture is created to make people obedient. We’re told to go to school and to obey the rules. If we do things the right way, we’ll someday have access to a lot of fancy things. And that’s OK to a certain extent. I mean, we can’t have hospitals and caring institutions if there’s isn’t some sort of order.
However, at some point, the following happens as the author writes in the book: “…people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?”
Society promotes a good life and your local churn promises eternal existence if you follow their rules. But at some point in life, you wake up and feel cheated, “Why I’m still not happy and lavishly rich?”
Well, that’s what happens when you strictly follow the rules imposed by others – you forget to pursue what makes you happy.
To resolve this and to find real meaning, the author suggests settings your own set of rules while still coping with the basic social norms. He writes the following:
“The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers. This is not to say that we should abandon every goal endorsed by society; rather, it means that, in addition to or instead of the goals others use to bribe us with, we develop a set of our own.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Lesson #2: To find Real Joy We Need To Learn To Live Now
Everything we do is towards some sort of future gain: We eat healthily and train to have nice-looking bodies later in life; We save money to buy a bigger car and a bigger house; We put up with our bosses’ anger outbursts hoping that one day he’ll promote us… But to find lasting happiness, we need to find joy in the things we do on a daily basis.
But how? How can someone transform an obviously shitty situation into a blissful, Instagram-worthy, experience? For example, waiting at a bus station or doing boring work?
As it turns out, you need to approach every situation the same way an Olympic athlete approaches every new race. By asking himself: How can I beat my record?
In the case of making an apparent dull job more interesting, you’ll have to ask yourself this: How can I gain the most of this situation?
In the book, Mihaly shares a story of an assembly line worker named Rico. While his colleagues were constantly complaining about the job, he was continuously optimizing his set of moves to make sure the job is done in the fastest possible way. This self-imposed challenge provider a joyful, momentary, pleasant experience doing a task most people will try to skip.
The same things can be applied to everything you do. When you’re facing a situation that doesn’t feel really enjoyable but it’s somehow unavoidable, instead of moaning, you can make the most out of the scene.
For instance, read a book while you wait for the bus and make sure that you’re doing the best possible work by challenging yourself even if the task is really dull.
That’s how you make the present moment more fun and life, in general, more pleasant.
“We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits now, they will be better off as adults.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Lesson #3: Free Your Mind To Focus Better
Do you know why machines are far more productive than people? Well, except for the fact that they don’t need food and to go to the bathroom to survive?
They outperform us because a single machine, in most of the cases, is programmed to do one particular task at a time.
A machine doesn’t have feelings and it doesn’t get distracted by the buzzing noises around. It doesn’t have a social media account and a desire to watch the latest episode of the now trending show. Their attention, or in the machine world operating power, is 100% devoted towards doing one single thing.
- The main task of the refrigerator is to keep the cooling system running.
- The main function of the car is to propel the motor.
- The main function of a PC is to process the open applications that are programmed to execute specific tasks on their own.
With that in mind, you need to realize that attention is what makes you who you are.
Consider the following: You’re a college student and if instead of hitting the books you’re messing around with the main cheerleader. If you ever sit down to study, your mind constantly thinks about seeing your dream girl. What would you think will happen after a few years? Do you think you will get hired by a Fortune 500 company once you graduate or you’ll end up working at a gas station? Most likely the latter.
Or as the author writes, “the things we pay attention to shape who we are and what we want.”
The same principles apply to everything.
If you pay attention to the latest fashion trends and if you get really excited about everything new, you’ll be most probably living to make the ends meet while your house is stuffed with clothes.
In contrast, if you devote your attention to do worthwhile things – helping others in some way, learning a new language, a new skill, etc – a job that pays well, and probably feels more meaningful, will be within your reach.
How to do that?
Well, first of all, you have to realize what you want in life. Secondly, in order to concentrate, you need to tailor your surroundings. To disregard all minor, trivial tasks that are only trying to waste your time.
Lesson #4: To Enter The Flow State, You Need To Exercise Control
The stuff we most enjoy doing are things that transport our consciousness into a new reality.
For example, we play video games and we watch movies because we’re somehow bored by our current state of being. The games and the films we watch bring our minds into a new world that’s more enjoyable. These things are designed to entertain us, that’s why they’re so addictive.
But you don’t have to be a genius to realize that escaping reality too often by playing games, watching shows, drinking is not good neither for your current self nor for your future self.
If all you do is play video games, you’ll end up becoming a glass-wearing fast food junkie with no social life and no real friends.
To enter the flow state, and respectfully improve your life, you need to perform a task that’s engaging and that can lead to a profitable future. Painting, writing, exercising, coding, whatever it is. The task you do should feel pleasant now and also lead to future prosperity.
Of course, at first, your mind will constantly drift and try to sabotage what you’re doing by forcing you to think about doing fun stuff. But if you deliberately block these unproductive thoughts, you’ll master your consciousness and enter flow state whenever you please.
“What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Lesson #5: Enjoyment Has Eight Major Components
Want to live like a movie star? No, you don’t need yachts and expensive jewelry to feel good about yourself.
According to the findings from the author of the book Flow, lasting satisfaction doesn’t come from obtaining luxurious goods, it comes from something else: Challenging work that requires skills along with a couple of other things.
The sorry-I-can’t-pronounce-your-last-name author Csikszentmihalyi argues that you need 8 elements to live a good life which are quite different from what modern society promotes – consumerism and social media fame.
These 8 elements are the core things you need to enter the flow state and make the present more enjoyable.
Here they are in short:
- Challenging activity: True joy comes from doing challenging work that requires concentration and a certain set of skills.
- Complete concentration: You need to be completely absorbed by the task you’re doing. When you immerse yourself in the work you do, your movements become almost automatic and your mind disregards everything else. You’re in the flow.
- Clear goals: You need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. What is the ultimate goal?
- Immediate feedback: What are the gains of the things you’re doing? You need to be aware of the possible earnings to concentrate better.
- Complete shutdown: Blocking (not thinking about) present worries is what makes the activity even more enjoyable. Your mind needs to put on hold everything (problems, troubles, frustration) to reach the next level of deep focus.
- Sense of control: In life, there are things we can do and such we can’t do. We can’t predict a storm or a financial crisis. However, we can prepare for a rainy day or save cash in advance. Joy and flow are based on focusing your mind on events you can change.
- Loss of self-consciousness: The complete isolation from the current world is a by-product of the flow experience. You’re so deeply involved in the work you do that you completely ignore the real world.
- Transformation of time: In flow state, time no longer feels the same way. It’s like we enter a slow-motion phase where everything around us is moving super slow while we operate at a regular speed. That’s why we might say that hours pass like minutes.
“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. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Lesson #6: When Pursuing Flow You Develop New Skills and You Grow
There’s a graph in the book that explains in simple terms what you should do if you want to get better at a particular task.
The diagram mentioned is composed of two axes:
- Vertical: Challenge.
- Horizontal: Skills.
The relation between these two is simple: When things get harder you’ll undoubtfully develop new skills to cope with the new obstacles. If you fail to level up, you’ll either get bored or feel that you’re falling behind and quit.
Let’s throw an example so you can understand this better:
Say you’re learning to play basketball. Initially, you can barely hold the ball in your hands. The main challenge you face is to throw the ball in the right direction. It’s not very difficult but it’s just the right amount of pressure. You feel in the flow because you’re concentrated on the current task of keeping the ball in your hands.
If you keep practicing, you’ll get better. When this happens, and if you are not facing new challenges, you will eventually get bored of playing alone.
On the other hand, you can play against your friend who’s playing basketball for years. However, since he’s much better than you are, you’ll feel anxious about your lack of skills and most probably quit.
The correct approach in this situation is to face an opponent who is slightly better. This way, you won’t get bored and also won’t feel stupid about your lack of skills. If you keep repeating this you’ll grow and your skills will develop.
In other words, when trying to get better at something: acting, writing, coding, playing table tennis, etc., don’t aim too high or try to compete (nor compare) with the best in the field. This can destroy your morale and force you to give up. You should increase the difficulty with just a notch and keep adding obstacles as you grow.
And when you’re constantly pushing yourself you’ll not only get better, you’ll also feel better.
- Learn to enjoy unbearable situations: Regardless of the type of work you do, there’ll always be something that feels dull and unworthy of your time. But we can only progress when we learn to find joy in even the dullest daily tasks. How can you do this? Pay attention to the details and set some sort of goals that will trigger a positive feedback loop.
- Take control over your thoughts: If we don’t do anything about it, our mind will start to wander. That’s why people love watching shows when they’re alone in a room. A TV show or a YouTube video gives our mind something to focus on while lowering the priority of the things that feel burdensome – the due mortgage payment or our health problems. To streamline your thought process, you need to consume less outside stimuli and face your thoughts more often.
- Focus on expressive skills: The author divides the skills we have in two classes: instrumental and expressive. Instrumental are the skills we need to survive in life: reading, eating, working a boring 9 to 5 job, etc. Unfortunately, they bring us little joy. Expressive skills, in contrast, are things that allow us to express our true feelings: singing, writing, playing a sport that reinforces our competitive personality. Clearly, you need to do more of the latter.
- Practice the “autotelic family context:” To help your children cultivate a flow state of mind, use this five-step program: 1) Clarity: Children need to know what you expect from them; 2) Centering: You, as a parent, should be interested in what your kid is doing in this very moment; 3) Choice: Kids should know all available options; 4) Commitment: The child should feel comfortable at the task; 5) Challenge: As a parent, you should constantly increase the difficulty.
- Find a challenging task: I hope it’s clear now that flow state happens only when we’re up against difficult, but not impossible task. Respectfully, to enter this focused state of mind more often, you need to indulge yourself in a skill-provocative work. Only by doing so, you’ll block all the buzz around and make real progress in life.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
This, sometimes kind of hard to digest book, is a must-read if you want to harness your mind and achieve total control over your consciousness – enter a flow state of mind more often.
But is flow achieved only by doing work?
No. You can be “in the zone” by doing a lot of things: having sex, listening to music, cooking, eating, looking at paintings, etc.
But if you really want to make the most out of this life-hack physical state, you should do the following: choose a single task you enjoy doing and continuously make things harder for you. By doing so, you’ll be completely absorbed in the task at hand, get better at this thing, and feel a lot happier overall.
Main takeaway: Happiness is not about getting new stuff or watching trivial shows. True content happens when you push yourself and upgrade your skills. When practicing at the edge of your skills, you get to fully enjoy life.
“The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of mind is chaos.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“The greater challenge is not only to benefit oneself, but to help others in the process. It is more difficult, but much more fulfilling, for the politician to actually improve social conditions, for the philanthropist to help out the destitute, and for the saint to provide a viable model of life to others.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
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