Book review: Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

by Janna

This is a blog post I wrote exactly two years ago today on one of my old blogs. Although I have changed A LOT in the last two years, this is still one of the best books I’ve read, so I’ve decided to re-post the is review of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Wow, Flow: The Classic Work on how to Achieve Happiness has been catapulted to the number 1 spot on my Favourite Books list! That said, it took me about three and a half months to finish the whole thing. It’s not an easy read, but if you stick to it and if you’re willing to use your brain and imagination, it is worth every little bit of effort you put in.

To give you some background, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor and former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. For the past twenty years he has been involved in research relating to the concept of Flow and decided that his findings should be accessible to people outside academia as well. So he started writing and publishing outside of academia, for laymen (and laywomen).

Let me explain the concept of Flow that is at the basis of Csikszentmihalyi’s work: Flow experience is the total involvement with life, an experience that strikes the right balance of challenge and skills, that makes us learn and grow within ourselves. This can be any experience or activity: reading, playing chess, rock climbing, weaving, dancing, or any other experience that involves you entirely.

Csikszentmihalyi notes that his book aims to present the general principles that generate flow in people’s lives rather than insider tips on how to achieve happiness. It draws on many studies conducted by Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues and uses concrete examples of how other people have transformed boring and meaningless lives into lives full of enjoyment.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are two main strategies that can be adopted to improve the quality of life: to make external conditions match our goals or to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our experience better. A combination of the two would be an ideal path to improve life experience.

Although occasionally flow experience may occur by chance, it is much more likely to occur from a structured activity, or from an individual’s ability to make flow occur.

The following elements would need to be existent to create flow conditions:

* challenging activity that requires skills
* merging of action and awareness
* clear goals and feedback
* concentration on the task at hand
* a sense of control
* loss of self-consciousness
* transformation of time.

If all of these conditions are met, the subject is much more likely to have a flow experience. Some activities are designed to be enjoyable and are thus much more likely to produce a flow experience, these include games, dancing, reading and so on. On the other hand an individual’s ability to create a flow experience for themselves is based on their ability to control psychic energy and direct their experience of outside events. For example, if an individual is focused on the activity itself, rather than the outcome, a flow experience is much more likely to occur.

Throughout the book, Flow is described in various circumstances:

* Physical activity, or the body in flow
* Mental activity or the flow of thought
* Vocational activity or work as flow
* Social activity , or flow in solitude or in company
* Tragedies transformed by flow.

In the chapter that studies flow and vocational activity, Csikszentmihalyi makes a very interesting observation: most people have most of their flow experiences while they are working or on the job and least likely to experience flow during their leisure time. Yet people wish to spend less time at work and more time doing leisure activities. This raises several important questions about our society and people today: Are we so impressed by societal values and opinions, that we think we have to hate our jobs? That we think it would be preferable to do nothing all day and never grow our skill set or our mental capacity? And what would our society, or even humanity in general look like, if all of us remained in a state of complacency?

Csikszentmihalyi asks similar questions in the last, and in my opinion best, chapter of the book, The Making of Meaning. Here, all the threads weaved throughout the book come together and such major themes as life goals, purpose and meaning are discussed.

This chapter discusses how, why and when people decide who they are in life and what it is they want to achieve. Among psychologists exists a consensus that this process happens in a sequence of steps, starting with the preservation of the self and eventually leading the individual to merge the self with a larger whole (such as a religion, a life purpose, etc). However, Csikszentmihalyi notes that most people stay in the first stages of this development process and only “if a person is lucky and succeeds in controlling consciousness” they can progress to the final stage.

My favourite section in the book discusses purpose and life goals and encourages us to stick with our convictions:

“Purpose gives direction to one’s efforts, but it does not necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead to all sorts of trouble, at which point one is tempted to give them up and find some less demanding script by which to order one’s action. 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.”

I think this is true for everyone of us. Some may not have any life goals or a strong sense of purpose, while others may have an exact plan of what they want to achieve. Our resolution should be the same, find our life purpose, live for it and fight for it. Because with a life purpose, we can turn every experience along the way into flow!

You can check out Flow: The Classic Work on how to Achieve Happiness at Amazon.

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