Thoughts on Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Noah Adelstein
9 min readApr 9, 2019

This was a paradigm-shifting book for me and also the first that I finished reading on my new Amazon Fire, which was a different (positive) reading experience than those in the past.

What do we mean by flow and why does it matter?

In as science-focused way as possible, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (calling him MC for short), broke down what it means and looks like to be in flow. His definition is described well in the below passage.

“we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal experience. It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt — sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile.”

MC’s description is nuanced and he spends significant time explaining it, but in short, flow is the experience of being fully engulfed in the task or activity at hand. Although that experience might not always be 100% positive while it is occurring (think climbing a very steep mountain), after the fact, these moments tend to be the ones we look back on most fondly and the ones where we are able to experience growth most fully.

When you invest 100% of your thought and energy into a given task, you both receive all of the positive externalities from the task and push yourself to the limit of ability, which is often needed to then grow stronger, faster, better, smarter, etc.

Although these experiences can happen incidentally or likely when we do the things we love, this book was so useful because of the new lens it created for me:

we have the ability to control our consciousness and the places/things we allocate attention towards. Internalizing that and focusing thoughts and energies towards specific things can increase both the quality of experience and the takeaway from those experiences.

Attention

Each person has a finite number of bits of attention that he/she can allocate towards their surroundings in any moment.

If I’m walking around my college campus, for example, I could put my attention towards the path I am taking, being careful not to step on any cracks in the ground. I could focus on the trees around me, the smiling faces of the students, the music coming through the headphones in my ears, or I could pick up the phone and call a friend.

None of these choices is mutually exclusive, but the more energy I put towards one thing, the less I have available to put towards another. It will be near impossible to talk on the phone, fully engaged in conversation, while also making sure to avoid cracks in the ground and appreciating the trees around me.

Knowing that we have control of our thoughts is an empowering way to think about experience. It’s why someone might love going to a party, focused on the music, socializing with friends, or trying to flirt with peers, while someone else at the same party might hate it — thinking about how they look awkward or wishing they were at home watching Game of Thrones.

How to get there

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

There is a huge variety of experiences that can elicit a flow experience. There are people that get lost in games like chess or tennis, in listening to music, in going for walks, farming, sailing, having conversations, in sexual activities, in eating and on and on.

That said, there are certain activities that tend to be easier to get lost in than others based on the characteristics that they have. MC broke down some of these common characteristics:

  • Tasks we have a chance of completing
  • Ones that give you control over your actions
  • Tasks we can concentrate on (clear goals and immediate feedback help)
  • Tasks with involvement that removes awareness of worries/frustrations of everyday life and takes away the concern for oneself
  • Ones that alter one’s sense of time (minutes feel like hours or vice versa)

My takeaways from this were, firstly, that finding more of these types of activities in my life will create more meaning and enjoyment.

It was secondly that where I allocate my attention will have a significant impact on how profound or meaningful a given task is.

How is it that something like eating can be so enjoyable for one person while just a means to an end for another? It’s because of the places we focus attention during the task.

A food connoisseur has a developed palate that can distinguish between different flavors and ingredients. When she eats food, her thoughts can go towards a vast number of places that leads to a fully consuming experience. Someone that shovels food down, thinking about their next business meeting is unlikely to enjoy the meal to the same degree.

The experience of listening to a song is similar. It is much more enjoyable when you are able to focus on the changes in the rhythm, the story being told, and the emotions being invoked as opposed to letting the song come in the background.

Allowing oneself to get fully consumed in each experience leads to a significantly higher quality of experience of outcome.

What does it mean each day?

For one, getting better at the ability to choose where you allocate attention helps. If I can shut out my thoughts of anxiety and focus on really listening to what my friend is saying, for example, I am way more likely to have an enjoyable experience.

Secondly, finding activities that you can get lost in is key. An important point here is that this does not always happen immediately. It often takes practice and effort to reach the point where you can get lost in something.

I can personally empathize with running — when I first started, it was hardly enjoyable. I would think about how long until I finished. The more I ran, though, the more comfortable it became the more I was able to instead enjoy the experience.

With most activities, at first, it’s difficult to be extremely skilled. It’s why most people give up before something becomes enjoyable. Pushing through those initial points, though, to when an activity becomes an enjoyable can lead to a much richer life.

I believe certain activities have lower barriers to entry than others and that those vary person to person. Learning to play and enjoy checkers, for example, is easier than chess. And chess is easier for a 20 year old than a 4-year old. The downside is that checkers might more easily become boring.

This entire lens and perspective is one I want to bring more deeply into my life and the activities that I take up.

What holds people back?

There are many reasons why someone might not enjoy an experience as fully, but there are a few common ones worth mentioning and acknowledging:

  • Focusing on something as a means to an end as opposed to enjoying the process (if I’m focused on finishing a book instead of on the content itself, I can’t get fully lost).
  • Putting energy into maintaining one’s self image (if I’m thinking about how I look while I’m running to those around me, I can’t get lost in the run).
  • The inability to focus attention (a schizophrenic is the extreme example of someone that has no control over their thoughts and is constantly being mentally interrupted by random stimuli).

Macro significance

Thus far, this train of thought has been more about day-to-day life and experience.

There are some broader implications and thoughts this book provoked that are worth mentioning as well.

The workplace and education

At work, helping those around you achieve flow can improve their time on the job and opinion of it. Following the guidelines of giving people challenging work where they receive feedback and feel in control of their actions can be a very useful framework for helping empower those around you.

Even for children, within education, there are similar lessons to be taken away. Offering them feedback on their activities, teaching them to learn for the sake of learning and not for the end goal, helping them find hobbies and activities where they can put all of their energy.

Time to get a little theoretical

MC argues that the most broad sense of these flow experiences comes from having anchors in one’s life that he/she can attach meaning towards and use for motivation and purpose. When one can create a ‘flow’ out of one’s life goals, he/she is likely to live meaningfully.

I wouldn’t say I stand behind this argument in its entirety, but I see the merit in it and see it as a useful framework.

“When a person’s psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony. But not all life themes are equally productive.”

If my entire goal for life, as a rudimentary example, is to make $100 million, then each action I take is either a step towards or away from that goal. Each action might not have immediate or clear feedback, but I could frame it in the context of this $100M goal and find meaningful experience in working towards that goal.

Historically, people have believed in different systems that give them an aligned life goal and they take actions to work towards that goal. Religion has been the most obvious and one of the most powerful of these systems that has guided people’s lives.

There are religions that say ‘do X, Y and Z with your life and you will go to heaven or live a divine life.’ People over time have attached to these beliefs and structured their lives accordingly.

Without saying whether they were noble or worthy goals, the experience one had in working towards this life was likely enjoyable and meaningful.

Today, as religion is on the decline, broadly speaking, people don’t have that same system to hold onto. It means one can find another system, or one can develop their own meaning and goals in life.

I believe doing something of the sorts is extremely important because it can help guide actions and create focus in daily activities.

There are two different routes to develop this meaning. The first is what existential philosophers have coined ‘inauthentic projects’ in which one lives in a certain way because he/she thinks it is what is supposed to be done. There are benefits here, though, as one does not have to make certain considerations for oneself and can trust the masses.

‘Authentic projects’ on the other hand come from one’s own choices about what matters and how to find meaning. While there are benefits to this route, like the ability to choose for oneself and avoid the pitfall in the cases where the masses are wrong, it also creates a lot of psychic entropy — disorder of the mind. How is one, for themselves, supposed to choose what matters and what goals to structure life around?

MC made an awesome point, though, on this.

“The strategy consists in extracting from the order achieved by past generations patterns that will help avoid disorder in one’s own mind. There is much knowledge — or well-ordered information — accumulated in culture, ready for this use. Great music, architecture, art, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy, and religion are there for anyone to see as examples of how harmony can be imposed on chaos.”

Nobody has to figure everything out for oneself. I can explore Freud, Nietzsche, read Hemingway, listen to The Beatles and choose for myself what of these other people’s experiences and perspectives I want to believe and bring into my own life.

Especially today, when information, music, and ideas are more accessible than ever, this is a tangible way to find and assign meaning. Although the trains of thought are difficult to dive into and often scary, doing so can lead to a life much more fully one’s own with personal opinions, preferences, and perspectives about how to live and where to get put psychic energy.

In closing

Like I said initially, this was a paradigm-shifting book. The lens MC helps paint is one I am excited to continue using and this review/summary leaves out lots of details, intricacies and other ideas that I took out.

Thoughts on this review/the book in general? Comment or send me a note :)

Full reading list here

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