in Book Summaries

Takeaways from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Flow was one of those books that kept getting recommended to me again and again. Every book that multiple  people have recommended me again and again has turned out to be excellent, and this was no exception.

The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist, and usually science books run the risk of being full of data and experiments without much soul or narrative to hold them together. (This was my experience with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.)

But Flow does not read like a science book, it reads like a self-help book. It’s a personal manifesto backed by science, rather than science warped to serve a manifesto, as sometimes happens when self-development and science intersect. The author puts it best:

“Rather than presenting a list of dos and don’ts, this book intends to be a voyage through the realms of the mind, charted with the tools of science. Like all adventures worth having it will not be an easy one. Without some intellectual effort, a commitment to reflect and think hard about your own experience, you will not gain much from what follows.”

Needless to say, I gained much and think it’s well worth a read.  Here’s excerpts of the 13 main points I noticed, with some extra comments from me. Plaintext is Csikszentmihalyi, italics are me.


To Live Well, Resist the Chaos of Reality by Controlling Consciousness

“A happy life it is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe. The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

“People moving through life eventually ask a question ‘Is this all there is?’ Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing, but for most people, behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better. During the years of early adulthood the future still looks promising, the hope remains that one’s goals will be realized. But inevitably the bathroom mirror shows the first white hairs, and confirms the fact that those extra pounds are not about to leave; inevitably eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains begin to shoot through the body. Like waiters in a restaurant starting to place breakfast settings on the surrounding tables while one is still having dinner, these intimations of mortality plainly communicate the message: Your time is up, it’s time to move on.”

“Those who cannot cope with a meaningless life may retire gracefully into relative oblivion. Following Candide’s advice, they will give up on the world and cultivate their little gardens. They might dabble in genteel forms of escape such as developing a harmless hobby or accumulating a collection of abstract paintings or porcelain figurines. Or they might lose themselves in alcohol or the dreamworld of drugs. While exotic pleasures and expensive recreations temporarily take the mind off the basic question “Is this all there is?” few claim to have ever found an answer that way.”

 Csikszentmihalyi notes that reality is chaotic, or entropic, in scientific terms. Living in a place where things change and you are buffeted by forces out of your control is a recipe for disaster and depression, which is why we must gain some measure of control of reality in order to create stability. Yet reality is fickle and cannot be truly controlled – the only aspect we control is our consciousness. That is what we should seek to control and shape, not the outside world. Doing so through passive entertainment will merely distract you from chaos – only seeking to control it will offer fulfillment.

You Cannot Adopt Another’s Way of Confronting Chaos

“There are many protective devices—religions, philosophies, arts, and comforts—that help shield us from chaos. They help us believe that we are in control of what is happening and give reasons for being satisfied with our lot. But these cultural shields are effective only for a while; after a few centuries, sometimes after only a few decades, a religion or belief wears out and no longer provides the spiritual sustenance it once did.” 

“When we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.”

“Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized. As soon as it becomes part of a set of social rules and norms, it ceases to be effective in the way it was originally intended to be. Routinization, unfortunately, tends to take place very rapidly.  The insights of the Gospels, of Martin Luther, of the framers of the Constitution, of Marx and Freud—just to mention a very few of those attempts that have been made in the West to increase happiness by enhancing freedom—will always be valid and useful, even though some of them have been perverted in their application. But they certainly do not exhaust either the problems or the solutions.”

This is why you must create your own recipe for a meaningful life – you cannot adopt the dogma of someone else because it will not work for your unique experience.” 

Invest Psychic Energy In Your Method To Find Flow

Once one has some idea of how they wish to control consciousness, they must take action to invest psychic energy into doing so, and once you get good at whatever that thing is, you will enter a flow statean effortless state when you lose track of time and become lost in the activity. Flow is psychic energy focused to the point that people can control their consciousness effortlessly, by shutting off all mental processes but the immediately relevant ones.

Once one finds a flow activity that works towards a goal, they can organize their concept of self around it. “Then, even though that person is objectively a slave (to the goal), subjectively he is free.”

“The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body. Some critics, however, prefer to stress the differences between flow and Yoga. Their main divergence is that, whereas flow attempts to fortify the self, the goal of Yoga and many other Eastern techniques is to abolish it.”

Csikszentmihalyi rejects abolishing the self. The subjective experience remains important. “It is not the hearing that improves life, it is the listening. We hear Muzak, but we rarely listen to it, and few could have ever been in flow as a result of it.” “What a person sees in a painting is not just a picture, but a “thought machine” that includes the painter’s emotions, hopes, and ideas—as well as the spirit of the culture and the historical period in which he lived.”

“Indeed, the personal with a fortified self is stronger than one without identity. They can draw strength from within. While others need external stimulation—television, reading, conversation, or drugs—to keep their minds from drifting into chaos, the person whose memory is stocked with patterns of information is autonomous and self-contained. Additionally, such a person is also a much more cherished companion, because she can share the information in her mind, and thus help bring order into the consciousness of those with whom she interacts.”

With a strong self, one does not rely on external stimulus to control consciousness. Think of enjoying crossword puzzles – you are dependent on “the challenge provided by an expert in the Sunday supplement or puzzle magazine. To be really autonomous in this domain, a better alternative is to make up one’s own crosswords. Then there is no longer need for a pattern to be imposed from the outside; one is completely free. And the enjoyment is more profound.”

Institutional Chaos Management Methods

“It is a common fate of many human institutions to begin as a response to some universal problem until, after many generations, the problems peculiar to the institutions themselves will take precedence over the original goal. For example, modern nations create armed forces as a defense against enemies. Soon, however, an army develops its own needs, its own politics, to the point that the most successful soldier is not necessarily the one who defends the country best, but the one who obtains the most money for the army.”

Young people are more intolerant of the constraints of routine and what came before – they are eager for change and filled with the energy to affect it. This is a better quality of experience, because you can “ play with and transform the opportunities in your surroundings, which is clearly more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they cannot alter.”

Only Flow Will Set You Free – Entertainment is a Distraction

There are many passive entertainment options that allow one to relinquish control of consciousness and enjoy oneself at the same time. But these are inferior to the active entertainment facilitated by personal flow experiences, because they are external stimuli that distract us from taking steps on our own.

With television: “We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. “

With drugs: “While under the influence of chemicals, the self is relieved from the responsibility of directing its psychic energy; we can sit back and watch the patterns of thought that the drug is providing for—whatever happens, it’s out of our hands.” “While psychotropic drugs do provide a wider variety of mental experiences than one would encounter under normal sensory conditions, they do so without adding to our ability to order them effectively.” He argues that drugs do not expand perspectives, as they are commonly said to do; rather they  reorder the contents of your existing one. 

Conquer Solitude Instead

Instead of contenting oneself with distraction, “It is crucial to learn how to exploit the opportunities of solitude. To enjoy being alone a person must build his own mental routines, so that he can achieve flow without the supports of civilized life—without other people, without jobs, TV, theaters, restaurants, or libraries to help channel his attention.”

Csikszentmihalyi isn’t the only one who thinks conquering solitude is of utmost importance. Leo Babauta of ZenHabits calls it ‘The No1 Habit of Highly Creative People”, and cites several greats from history who agree.

He offers a vivid anecdote about a lone sailor stuck for days in an area without wind. The man had rotten eggs from a spoilt fridge, and was so bored he broke the eggs on the deck so that he would get to clean them up afterwards, just to have something to do. “In ordinary circumstances, solo sailors have plenty to keep their minds occupied. Their survival depends on being ever alert to the conditions of the boat and of the sea. It is this constant concentration on a workable goal that makes sailing so enjoyable. But when the doldrums set in, they might have to go to heroic lengths to find any challenge at all.”

On Raising Children Respectfully

Raising children in a way that allows them to control consciousness, find flow activities, and do so without being sidetracked by passive entertainment is tricky. It’s hard to tell another human how to spend their life while respecting their personal agency. That’s why families are so easy to mess up.

“A successful family must be both differentiated and integrated. Differentiation means that each person is encouraged to develop his or her unique traits, maximize personal skills, set individual goals. Integration, in contrast, guarantees that what happens to one person will affect all others. If a child is proud of what she accomplished in school, the rest of the family will pay attention and will be proud of her, too. If the mother is tired and depressed, the family will try to help and cheer her up. In an integrated family, each person’s goals matter to all others.”

So you need to support the kids while letting them do their own thing. But it’s hard for kids to find their own things that are legitimate activities, since their underdeveloped psyche is drawn to the easy distractions of drugs, sex, and video games. Suburbs are especially poisonous, since they’re essentially teenage nurseries, formulated to keep them as sheltered as possible from ‘the real world’. ( “Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seems boring and sterile. The whole place is a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children. – Paul Graham, Why Nerds Are Unpopular

Csikszentmihalyi agrees: “What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year-old do in your typical suburb? If you consider that question you will probably conclude that what is available is either too artificial, or too simple, or not exciting enough to catch a teenager’s imagination. It is not surprising that athletics are so important in suburban schools; compared to the alternatives, they provide some of the most concrete chances to exercise and display one’s skills. Consciously or not, many young girls feel that becoming pregnant is the only really adult thing they can do, despite its dangers and unpleasant consequences.”

Instrumental and Expressive Skills

“One way to describe the skills that every man and woman has is to divide them in two classes: the instrumental and the expressive. Instrumental skills are the ones we learn so that we can cope effectively with the environment. They are basic survival tools, like the cunning of the hunter or the craft of the workman, or intellectual tools, like reading and writing and the specialized knowledge of the professional in our technological society. People who have not learned to find flow in most of the things they undertake generally experience instrumental tasks as extrinsic—because they do not reflect their own choices, but are requirements imposed from the outside.”

Expressive skills, on the other hand, refer to actions that attempt to externalize our subjective experiences. Singing a song that reflects how we feel, translating our moods into a dance, painting a picture that represents our feelings, telling a joke we like, and going bowling if that is what makes us feel good are forms of expression in this sense.”

“When involved in an expressive activity we feel in touch with our real self. A person who lives only by instrumental actions without experiencing the spontaneous flow of expressivity eventually becomes indistinguishable from a robot who has been programmed by aliens to mimic human behavior.”

I’d characterize this distinction through activities you have to do, versus activities you want to do. Needs vs wants. You can take pleasure in both, but you undertake them for very different reasons. Dare I mention how well this fits into my fundamental duality of subjective/objective?

On Friends and Community

“A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form. It is someone who shares our goal of self-realization, and therefore is willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity entails.”

“A person is part of a family or a friendship to the extent he invests psychic energy in goals shared with other people:

  • A community should be judged good not because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges.
  • Similarly the value of a school does not depend on its prestige, or its ability to train students to face up to the necessities of life, but rather on the degree of the enjoyment of lifelong learning it can transmit.
  • A good factory is not necessarily the one that makes the most money, but the one that is most responsible for improving the quality of life for its workers and its customers.
  • And the true function of politics is not to make people more affluent, safe, or powerful, but to let as many as possible enjoy an increasingly complex existence.”

Offering freedom and challenge at the same time makes for good communities, and offering acceptance yet shared goals makes for good friends. I was close with my recipe for a bestie – true friends share values, preferred activities, and pasts. 

Be Autotelic – Translate Threats Into Opportunities

“Richard Logan found in his study of individuals who survived severe physical ordeals—polar explorers wandering alone in the Arctic, concentration camp inmates—one common attitude shared by such people was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their hands. They did not doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.”

“People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person’s goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish.”

“The ‘autotelic self’ is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self. The term literally means “a self that has self-contained goals,” and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self. For most people, goals are shaped directly by biological needs and social conventions, and therefore their origin is outside the self. For an autotelic person, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness, and therefore from the self proper.”

“A person who pays attention to an interaction instead of worrying about the self obtains a paradoxical result. She no longer feels like a separate individual, yet her self becomes stronger. The autotelic individual grows beyond the limits of individuality by investing psychic energy in a system in which she is included. Because of this union of the person and the system, the self emerges at a higher level of complexity. This is why ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

This is how Csikszentmihalyi justifies the fortified Western sense of self over ego-less Eastern philosophies. Such a person is so in tune with her reality that she ceases to exist, yet it is precisely her ability to find flow regardless of circumstance that defines her. They are not passive, but proactive in response to her environment – she is happy with what is and also what could be.

For more on translating threats into opportunities, check out Ryan Holiday’s stellar introduction to the philosophy of Stoicism: The Obstacle is The Way.

Transform Your Life Into One Big Flow Activity to Find Meaning

“But to change all existence into a flow experience, it is not sufficient to learn merely how to control moment-by-moment states of consciousness. It is also necessary to have an overall context of goals for the events of everyday life to make sense. If a person moves from one flow activity to another without a connecting order, it will be difficult at the end of one’s life to look back on the years past and find meaning in what has happened. To create harmony in whatever one does is the last task that the flow theory presents to those who wish to attain optimal experience; it is a task that involves transforming the entirety of life into a single flow activity, with unified goals that provide constant purpose.”

It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying.”

“From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is—provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy. The challenge might involve the desire to have the best beer-bottle collection in the neighborhood, the resolution to find a cure for cancer, or simply the biological imperative to have children who will survive and prosper. As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life.”

“The price one pays for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while one may achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it is likely that it will end up empty and void of meaning. For those who have met goals consistently, despite pain and failure, life as a whole had a chance to become like an extended episode of flow: a focused, concentrated, internally coherent, logically ordered set of experiences, which, because of its inner order, was felt to be meaningful and enjoyable.”

On Balancing Activity and Reflection

“Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. To discard the hard-won information on how to live accumulated by our ancestors, or to expect to discover a viable set of goals all by oneself, is misguided hubris. The chances of success are about as good as in trying to build an electron microscope without the tools and knowledge of physics.”

Science (What Is) vs Faith (What Ought To Be)

“A vital new religion may one day arise again. In the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

“If a new faith is to capture our imagination, it must be one that will account rationally for the things we know, the things we feel, the things we hope for, and the ones we dread. It must be a system of beliefs that will marshal our psychic energy toward meaningful goals, a system that provides rules for a way of life that can provide flow. It is difficult to imagine that a system of beliefs such as this will not be based, at least to some degree, on what science has revealed about humanity and about the universe.”

“Without such a foundation, our consciousness would remain split between faith and knowledge. But if science is to be of real help, it will have to transform itself. In addition to the various specialized disciplines aimed at describing and controlling isolated aspects of reality, it will have to develop an integrated interpretation of all that is known, and relate it to humankind and its destiny.”

“The obvious critique of this scenario is that science in general, and the science of evolution in particular, deals with what is, not with what ought to be. Faiths and beliefs, on the other hand, are not limited by actuality; they deal with what is right, what is desirable. But one of the consequences of an evolutionary faith might be precisely a closer integration between the is and the ought.”

“When we understand better why we are as we are, when we appreciate more fully the origins of instinctual drives, social controls, cultural expressions—all the elements that contribute to the formation of consciousness—it will become easier to direct our energies where they ought to go.”

This is just a taste. Go read the book!