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A Synopsis of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘FLOW’


Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago conducted a worldwide research over thousands of people across occupations and professions. The studies, conducted over many years, show that people are at their best in every sense when experiencing what the professor calls ‘flow’. He describes it as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Flow happens when a person is completely involved in the task, is concentrating very deeply, and knows moment by moment what the next steps should be. Take the example of a musician immersed in a performance. He knows what note will come next, and knows how to play that note. There is both a clear goal and the built-in opportunity for him to get feedback. Experience like this can be both addictive and highly satisfying or rewarding.

Interestingly, people reported experiencing these feelings more often at work than in free time or leisure hours - especially when the job was complex and demanding. The results prompted researchers to challenge the common belief that people are motivated to work hard or take up challenges primarily for material gain.

Elements of flow

As people described how they felt when they thoroughly enjoy themselves, eight distinct dimensions or elements repeatedly found mention. These were common to subjects ranging from corporate executives to sportsmen and from mystics to housewives.

1. The task is such that one feels that there is a chance of completing it. In fact, this is one of the main principles of ‘flow’ which requires that there be a match between the perceived challenge and the skills. It is unlikely that flow will occur in case the perception is that one far exceeds the other.

2. Though it may not be defined in detail or broken in steps, the goal needs to be clear. Only when one is aware of what one desires to achieve at the end and sets out to achieve it will flow be experienced. This could be playing a piece of music flawlessly, reach the top of a difficult rock face, achieve a certain sales figure in a given time or win a crucial game of tennis.

3. Flow is usually accompanied by focussed attention and concentration while at the task. We are able to concentrate entirely on the work on hand. Worries and concerns are temporarily suspended.

4. Another important condition that has been reported is that the task should provide ongoing and immediate feedback. One should not have to wait for completion to know how you are progressing or performing.

5. There is a sense of control over one’s actions and even though the task may be challenging and difficult, it nevertheless becomes an enjoyable experience.

6. The immersion in the task results in a deep, and often an effortless involvement and removes the worries and frustrations of everyday life in the background.

7. The engagement and immersion in the experience blurs the mental clock. A very common condition accompanying flow experiences is altered sense of time. Hours pass by in minutes or minutes may seem like hours.

8. The activity becomes what Csikszentmihalyi calls autotelic – doing it for its own sake. There is no self-consciousness, concern for self and at times even the purpose or reward is not in mind during the experience. However, a stronger sense of self is experienced after the flow experience is over.

Flow and happiness

The larger the number of flow experiences, more enjoyable is ones existence or higher is the level of happiness. In fact, the more flow experiences one can create for oneself or take part n are directly proportionate to ones intrinsic level of happiness.

However, one must distinguish between pleasure and happiness. Eating a chocolate ice cream or sipping beer on a beach in Goa can give someone a lot of pleasure (provided one likes those and does them wilfully). But pleasure by itself does not necessarily result in happiness.

Pleasure is transient and short-lived whereas enjoyment that results in happiness is longer lasting. While pleasure can be experiences without attention and direct involvement of energy, enjoyment resulting in happiness is possible when there is some involvement or focus of attention.

Pleasure is only extrinsic – superficial and sensory in nature, while enjoyment and happiness results in something intrinsic or in ones development and growth.

Life can be lived without enjoyment and may even turn out to be pleasant. However, it will then be totally dependent on getting the pleasures through external environment or luck. Seeking only extrinsic rewards may result in pleasures becoming the only source of positive experience. Some sad stories we hear of the rich and famous often reflect this.

Flow and Challenge

Flow according to Csikszentmihalyi, “pushes a person to higher levels of performance, and leads to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In this growth of self lies the key to flow activities.”

Flow is best explained in this context as a relationship between the perceived challenge and the skills possessed. To experience flow one must begin with a certain level of skill training, and discipline.

At the stage where both the skill and challenge are low, one may experience flow for some time (see diagram on next page). But as one progresses, either apathy will set in because of repeatedly meeting the low level challenge or boredom will take over due to the lack of challenge (the skill has been learned at that level). In case skill has not been built, anxiety may occur because of the presence of a bigger challenge than one can cope to face.

Whatever the case, one would want to get back to flow - either by overcoming the anxiety challenge by becoming more skilled, or taking on a challenge that will overcome the boredom. This will also make one move to the right in the corridor of flow – to a new flow stage at a higher or more complex level.

For getting the best out of oneself, challenge needs to be just higher than the perceived skill. This is analogous to the concept of stretch in its true sense. The struggle to meet the slightly higher challenge (compared to perceived skills) keeps one engaged and immersed in the flow conditions. The gap must be reasonable enough to keep the person interested or manage while acquiring the needed skills. It is a delicate balance as pushing the challenge any higher will arouse fear, anxiety or the need to give up.

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