Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Review of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Psychology
Book Club Event = Book List (05/18/2024)

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“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them.  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, Chapter 1: Happiness Revisited, Page 14

“This paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task.  In fact, there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way.  The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present.  When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Chapter 1: Happiness Revisited, Page 25

“There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life.  The first is to try making external conditions match our goals.  The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Chapter 3: Enjoyment And The Quality Of Life, Page 75


Is This An Overview?

Optimal experiences come about when the individual has worked hard to attain them.  When the body or mind are at their limit through voluntarily effort, in difficult and worthwhile experiences.  The optimal experience is called flow, for during flow, nothing else matters except the activity.  During flow, the sense of self vanishes.  During flow, the individual is not reflecting about worries or inadequacies, but after the experience when there is reflection, positive feedback is obtained.  During flow, the individual has a sense of control in difficult situations.  To obtain flow, the activity needs to be challenging, with the individual having the skills to overcome the challenge.  The activity needs to provide joy within the process of the experience, rather than through an expected reward for the effort. 

Creating conditions for the optimal experience, does not necessitate that flow will occur.  A major factor in flow, in enjoyment, is the mind.  Different individuals can perceive a situation differently, such as a situation being an obstacle for one but an opportunity for another.  It takes constant effort to prevent the chaos of the mind, it takes effort to gain mastery over the consciousness.  Culture and external stimuli can organize the mind, but they can be deceptive and make the individual dependent on them rather than adapting to new situations and improving their lives.  Happiness is derived by how the individual interprets what it happening, rather than how other people interpret the individual’s behavior. 


How To Protect Oneself Against Chaos?

How everyday is experienced depends on the mind and how the mind processes information.  Happiness depends on inner harmony rather than control of external forces.  Physical survival depends on mastery of external environment, but that does not reduce the chaos of the world experienced.  To master the chaos, requires having mastery over consciousness.  Quality of life can be improved by matching external conditions to expectations, or changing how the individual experiences external conditions.   

Rising expectations improve the quality of life but provides discontent as the quality of life seems subpar compared to expectations.  There is no problem when people escalate their expectations and enjoy the struggle to achieve them.  The problem is when people focus on their expectations that they cease to derive pleasure from the present.  They forfeit their contentment. 

Culture socializes people, to make their behaviors more predictable which enables cooperative benefits.  Cultures provide a method of interpreting chaos.  But when the cultural values fail, there is danger of disillusionment.  Confidence in cultural values prevents people from considering and adapting to different values that can be better within contexts.  Cultures can prevent reflection of people’s values, that can prevent people from attaining the quality of life they want.  Reflection would cause disillusionment.  Cultural symbols of happiness, are deceptive.  They tend to distract from reality they are designed to represent.  Quality of life depends on how the individual feels about what is happening, rather than how other people think of the individual.  Therefore, needs to improve the quality of the experience.

Chaos is the modus operandi of the mind.  It takes training to focus thoughts without external stimuli.  Contemporary society seems helpless in control chaos compared to ancient societies.  Even ancient societies knew how to control their lives. The reason is that kind of knowledge, is not something that can be memorized and routinely applied.  What it takes is trial and error experiences by each individual.  Knowing how to achieve control is not enough, what it takes is to consistently apply it.  To keep practicing control.

There are societies that have mastered material achievements, but fail at spiritual acts.  There are societies that have mastered spiritual achievements, but fail at material acts.   A better society would incorporate the material and spiritual needs of a people.

Controlling consciousness needs to be adaptive to era and cultural contexts.  Historical ways to achieve control, do not necessarily apply to contemporary contexts.  Control of consciousness cannot be routinized, cannot be institutionalized. 

The state of mind is to an extent independent from the objective environment.  As people can change how they perceive what is happening.  The same situations can appear as obstacles to some while an opportunity for others.  There are limits to how much pain a person a person can endure while maintaining happiness with the control of consciousness. 

Consciousness is shaped by the self and attention.  The self directs attention, while attention determines the self.  Memory and pattern recognition are needed shape the mind.  Memory of information is useless if not connected to other information to form a pattern. 


What Is The State Of Flow?

Psychic disorder adversely effects consciousness.  Psychic disorder is information that conflicts with known information.  Psychic disorder diverts attention to unwanted objects, which inhibits performance. 

The opposite of psychic disorder, is the optimal experience.  That is when information received is congruent with objects.  When psychic energy flows effortlessly.  Task enjoyment depends on being able to complete the task, able to concentrate on the task, has clear goals, provides immediate feedback, remove worries and frustrations, enables a sense of exercise control over actions, the self disappears and emerges stronger after the experience, and perception of the duration of time is altered. 

The tasks need to provide opportunities of being challenged and having appropriate skill to realize.  Challenging tasks are meaningless for those without the skills.  Competition can be enjoyable as it provides a challenge and tends to improve the competitors.  But competition is not enjoyable when defeating the opponent takes precedence over the performance, when competition itself becomes the end itself.

Flow experiences tend to happen when a potential loss is not detrimental to living life.  A lack of worry about losing control.  That they have the possibility of control the outcomes rather than actually controlling the outcomes.  Having control can become addictive, with the individual losing the ability to cope with the ambiguities of life. 

The self does not disappear, but the concept of self does.  Information used to represent an identity.  A loss of self-consciousness that can lead to self-transcendence. 

The flow experience needs to be autotelic, a self-contained activity, an activity done for the process of doing the activity rather than a reward. 

Variety is needed for experiences for them to be enjoyable.  Experiences are become frustrating when they repeat and do not continue to test skills.  What matters is also the skills that the individual believes they have not just those that are shown. 


How Flow Applies To Life?

Music helps organize the mind that reduces psychic entropy.  Parents that focus on how their children perform music rather than how they experience music, turn music into a source of psychic disorder. 

Writing not only transmits information, but also creates information.  Journals can be used as a source of reflection.  A source of organizing thoughts. 

Forcing someone to learning creates resistance.  Learning because someone wants to absorb information will make learning relatively effortless and enjoyable. 

Work does not need to be unpleasant.  Work can be a source of enjoyment.  Workers who enjoy their jobs are benefited personally and are more efficient in their tasks.  Even optimal conditions for work enjoyment is not guarantee of flow, because that also depends on how the individual perceives their possible actions, and capacities.  Sources of discontent at work can be a lack of variety and challenge, conflict with colleagues, and burnout. 

People waste free time with passive activities, rather than risking acting on their beliefs.  To enjoy work and free time, requires taking charge of them. 

Other people are a source of the best and worst times.  People depend on the feedback of others, and are vulnerable to how they are treated. 



Most of the book focuses on internal representation of events, and the conditions needed to obtain flow.  But the way to flow and happiness is difficult.  What is provided are methods to change external influences and how to change one’s perspective to facilitate flow.  But no method is guaranteed or easy, because it takes the individual to experiment and challenge themselves to attain flow.  This is a book about inducing social disillusionment.  An attempt to make the individual take control over their own consciousness rather than rely on external stimuli.


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is the optimal experience (flow)?
•What happens during flow?
•How to achieve flow?
•What role does the mind have in flow?
•How to gain mastery over consciousness?
•How does culture and external stimuli effect chaos?
•How to be happy?
•Do people experience the same events the same ways?
•What is the paradox of rising expectations?
•Why does it appear that ancient societies were better able to control their lives? 
•How much can the state of mind be controlled? 
•How is memory used?
•What is consciousness? 
•What is psychic disorder?
•Why is a challenge needed?
•How does the individual think about the self?
•How to have a feeling of control?
•What is an autotelic experience?  
•What effect does music have?
•Can flow influence work?
•How to use free time?
•How do other people effect the individual? 
•What is cultural relativism?  
•How do drugs effect the mind? 
•What is the effect of socialization? 
•What does reality think about human desires?
•What is the point of pleasure? 
•How to use natures programming?  
•What is the point of writing? 

Book Details
Edition:                 EPub Edition
Publisher:             HarperCollins
Edition ISBN:      9780061876721
Pages to read:       344
Publication:          2009
1st Edition:           1990
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5