Book Review: Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience


By Mackieklew (

By Mackieklew (

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Education is not the filling of a pail,  but the lighting of a fire.
– – –   William Butler Yeats

The Yeats quote is a good way to start a review of Flow for a couple of reasons.   First,  it is one of those books that changes how one views the world, which engages the mind – lights a fire,  in other words.   Secondly,  the book is specifically about that kind of engagement, which Csikszentmihalyi calls  “optimal experience”,  or flow.

” ‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered,  and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.”  (p.  6) In flow,  a person’s attention is wholly focused on what they are doing and they are being challenged to stretch their skills,  but not in a way that causes anxiety.   In a life devoted to flow,  a person constantly strives to establish goals, obtain new skills or enhance their existing skills and use those skills to successfully meet new challenges.   Such a life is creative and satisfying in ways no other way of life can match.

In another quote a life that has flow does so by working on a goal or goals and mastering the skills needed to reach the goal:

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 [attention] .   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.  (p.  215)

Csikszentmihalyi,  the author,  is a psychologist who has spent his life studying positive psychology – what makes people happy.   Perhaps this is not surprising in someone who in his childhood endured the horror of World War II.   He and his team have studied thousands of people over the years,  specifically looking at when people are the happiest.   One technique used was to send people a page at 8 to 10 random times a day.   The participants knew that when they received a page they were to write down the time,  where they were,  what they were doing,  and how they felt.

The results are fascinating.   While flow occurs fairly commonly in the arts or athletic competition as expected,  there are people who find flow in repetitive factory work or hard labor such as farming or raising herds of animals.   Moreover,  wealth,  position,  and ease of life do not necessarily create flow:

Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable,  however: people who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest,  completing a hard task,  or sharing a crust of bread with a friend. (p.  6)

So why do some people achieve flow while so many others do not?   Most people have experienced it at some point,  but didn’t realize it at the time.   For others it is a common experience.   There are some personality traits that make optimal experiences more common.   The people who cultivate flow most successfully are neither self-conscious (anxious about how others perceive them)  nor self-centered.  “Children who grow up in family situations that facilitate clarity of goals,  feedback,  feeling of control,  concentration on the task at hand,  intrinsic motivation [doing a task for the joy of the task itself],  and challenge will generally have a better chance to order their lives so as to make flow possible.”  (p.  89)  Csikszentmihalyi also mentions (p.  236) that lives full of flow are more likely to happen to those who were read to as children.  In addition,  the person who is successful is able to negotiate both differentiation,  or self-awareness and growth as an individual,  and integration,  an ability to be a part of something larger than ourselves,  to be part of the community’s growth.  (p.  223).

Where do flow experiences most often happen?   Despite the fact that society tends to denigrate work and exalt leisure,  most people are considerably more likely to experience flow at work than in pursuing leisure activities,  particularly if the leisure activity is a passive one such as watching television.  Work can become more conducive to optimal experiences by being redesigned with that goal in mind,  and helping workers to have the kind of personality that is most open to flow, “by training them to recognize opportunities for action,  to hone their skills,  to set reachable goals”.  (p.  157)

Can one increase the ability to be in the flow?  Yes.   “It does not matter where one starts –  whether one chooses goals first,  develops skills,  cultivates the ability to concentrate,  or gets rid of self-consciousness.   One can start anywhere,  because once the flow experience is in motion the other elements will be much easier to attain.”  (p.  212)

While many speak of the virtues of simplicity,  Csikszentmihalyi writes continuously in this book about the beauty of increasing complexity.   For example:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness.  This  happens when psychic energy  –  or attention  –  is invested in realistic goals,  and when skills match the opportunities for action… A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being.   By stretching skills,  by reaching toward higher challenges,  such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.”  (p.  6)

It is in striving for something better that individuals and humanity as a whole become something better.   If the earth were to disappear tomorrow,  the memory of Shakespeare,  Ghandi,  Rosa Parks,  and multitudes more,  sung and unsung,  would continue to resonate.   Humanity has achieved that which will last.   The author says something similar:

It is true that life has no meaning,  if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience,  a goal that is valid for every individual.   But it does not follow that life cannot be GIVEN meaning.   Much of what we call culture and civilization consists in efforts people have made,  generally against overwhelming odds,  to create a sense of purpose for themselves and their descendants.   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. (p. 215)

While mulling over how to write this review,  I came across a video with a snippet of a graduation speech by Neil Gaiman (whom I suspect has the kind of personality Csikszentmihalyi celebrates) given to the University of the Art in 2012 .   Gaiman gave this advice to the graduates for how to deal with adversity:  “Make Good Art”.   It is advice Csikszentmihalyi would endorse,  and Flow is the manual to achieve it.


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