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Flow (by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)


This is one of those books that I kept finding cited in a number of others that I have been reading, so much so that I had already got the concept of “flow” long before I read it.

The author with the unpronounceable name – until you learn how to pronounce it – is a Hungarian psychologist who, about 70 years ago, moved to the USA and spent his career there. He died last year (in 2021) at the age of 87.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Csíkszentmihályi‘s research and studies have been focused on understanding the root of happiness. Based on these, he formulated the theory that he called “flow“.

You are in the “flow” when you are so concentrated on an activity that you become unaware of the passing of the time and nothing else exists for you. You do the activity not because of an external goal, for example money, success, or religion. You do it just for the sake of it.

“Flow” is therefore a highly focused mental state.

There are certain conditions that need to be present for you to achieve the flow, one of these being that the challenges you face in your activity should match your skills: you don’t want to face hard challenges otherwise you get frustrated. The opposite is also true, if the challenges are too easy for your skills, you get bored.

You should also have the time to do the activity. While I was reading the book, lots of activities that would put me “in the zone” came to mind, one of these being reading. But when I do it, I’m often interrupted (which causes the flow to be therefore interrupted and making me the exact opposite of happy), and if I do have some time that I can dedicate just to reading, this is usually very limited. Basically, I cannot enter the flow state and maintain it whenever I want.

Also, if I need to get into the flow this means that I need to get happiness, that when I don’t do the activity, I’m not happy. I might not have understood the logic, but this sounds unconvincing to me.

While I totally agree that by deciding where your mind focuses its attention is key to happiness, I don’t think that driving your mind towards flow is the source of happiness. The fact that too many external factors are involved implies that the flow is reserved only for those who can afford these factors.

I agree that happiness is a choice, that happiness is a mental state and that this doesn’t happen overnight, we can experience it only through practice. However, I think that the source of it is something else. I think that happiness is freedom and that this comes through mindfulness: we observe our emotions and thoughts as they naturally arise, we allow them without judgement, we let them go. We are free from them. The more we master this awareness the happier we are.

Both flow and mindfulness are mental states, and both are beneficial for your wellbeing. However, when you’re in the flow, you are in altered state of consciousness because you lose your ability to observe; quite the opposite, with mindfulness you are not only aware of your emotions and thoughts but you’re also aware of the fact that you are aware.

So, I think that it’s mindfulness the real source of happiness, not flow. Mindfulness is always available, regardless of external factors. What you need is only one thing. The good news is that you don’t need to get it, you already have it, and it’s always there with you: your mind.

In Conclusion

Even if I didn’t agree with some main points, overall, I think this book is very thought-provoking and I found myself devouring it. Full of concrete examples and accessible information, it is well-researched and very easy to read.

Some of My Favourite Quotes From the Book:

Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.

The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of J. H. Holmes. “It is simply indifferent”.

Living exclusively by genetic and social instructions is fine as long as everything goes well. But the moment biological or social goals are frustrated- which in the long run is inevitable – a person must formulate new goals, and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will always waste his energies in inner turmoil.

A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness.

How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how to the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe. Certainly we should keep on learning how to master the external environment, because our physical survival may depend on it. But such mastery is not going to add one jot to how good we as individuals feel, or reduce the chaos of the world as we experience it. To do that we must learn to achieve mastery over consciousness itself.

The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will

Title: Flow – The psychology of happiness
Author: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
Year first published: 1990

From Goodreads:

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow.

During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and total involvement with life.

Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness, unlock our potential, and greatly improve the quality of our lives.

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