Summary of Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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This book is all about how we can transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment through a concept called "Flow" and optimal experiences.

Here's a breakdown of the key points that I took from this book:-​

Why We're Unhappy

Most of us have no idea what things we should focus on in order to live a happy life.

1. We Strive after the Wrong Things

We tend to chase things that we think will make us happy, only to achieve these misguided goals and be left with the stark realization that we've been chasing the wrong thing all along.  

​For example:-

  • Acquiring new things - houses, cars, clothing, jewelry
  • Mindlessly chasing wealth
  • Endlessly climbing the corporate ladder

We achieve our goals, celebrate and feel good for a while.  But then that all too familiar empty feeling returns.

How do we respond to this?  We set new goals.  

"I thought I needed the car to be happy, but now I realize that it's the house that I really need.  Once I have the house and the car, what more could I want?  I'll definitely be happy then"​

We somehow manage to convince ourselves that, even though we've been chasing things to be happy and not managed it our entire lives, this time will be different.

So we forever strive for new levels of achievement in the hope that, once attained, we'll find the happiness we are desperately searching for.

This endless loop has been labeled the hedonic tredmill.  ​We're running and chasing as hard as we can, but we don't get anywhere, similar to a running tredmill in a gym.

On top of this, we are so intent on focusing on what we want to achieve that we are unable to derive pleasure from the present moment.​ 

2. We Have Inner Conflicts

The normal state of the mind is a state of chaos and disorder that is neither useful nor enjoyable.  Our attention jumps about all over the place, often on things that have little to no meaning, without any cohesion or strategy.

Often our attention comes across a new piece of information that we interpret in such a way that it is in conflict with an existing goal.  This puts us in a state of "psychic entropy" and is known as disorder in consciousness.

This can leave us stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.  We have a goal of moving in one direction, but we have some kind of lower emotion such as pain, fear, rage, anxiety or jealousy that's pulling us in the opposite direction.​

Sometimes we can resolve these issues, in which case we emerge relatively unscathed. But in most instances the conflict persists for a prolonged duration, depleting our willpower, and leaving us unable to invest our attention on pursuing the original goal.

Here's a practical example of this phenomenon:

John decides to create a business because he's always wanted to be his own boss.  He has a grand vision of building an awesome company that will not only offer real value to the world but also help him provide a great life for his family.  He's excited by this prospect.

However, John hasn't had any experience running a business before and is anxious that this will be just another failure for him.  He's also unsure of his ability, because he's never really experienced any success in his life before.  These worries and anxieties are crippling him and urging him to quit and cut his losses.

​John's attention is now split between these two opposing and conflicting forces.  One force is encouraging him to push on and build the business, and the other is urging him to quit.

Because of this conflict, it's extremely hard for him to be productive because he's constantly procrastinating and finds it really difficult to focus on the stuff that he knows he should be doing to grow his business.  While John does get himself to do his work some of the time, and occasionally is very productive, he is really inconsistent. He'll often go through periods where he wants to quit, can't find a good reason to work and is battling negative thoughts.

Eventually, John gets tired. 

He is unable to invest his attention on his business anymore and quits.  He surrenders his grand vision of owning a business.  He simply couldn't get himself to take the prolific and relentless action needed to get the company going because of his inner conflict.

When he finally gives up, order in his consciousness is restored and he feels a sense of relief.  The conflict is resolved.

Many of us have many of these conflicts at the same time in our consciousness.  They drain us, leave us unhappy, jeopardize our goals and prevent us from ever reaching peak experiences, otherwise known as "Flow" (more about this later).

3. We Lack Meaning

​What are we doing what we're doing?  What's the point?  What's the bigger picture?

Most of us go to work because we need money to pay the bills​.  Despite spending a third of our waking lives at work, we feel no connection to what we do.  We do what is expected of us because we need the reward - our salary at the end of the month.  We don't care beyond the fact that we get paid.  Our work is simply a means to an end.

When we clock off, we can enjoy our free "leisure" time where we try to use our minds as little as possible.  For most of us, this means mindlessly watching television.  For others it might mean going out, getting drunk, doing chores or some other kinds of fun activity.

At some point, we inevitably wake up and ask ourselves - "where has my life gone?".  We look back realize that we have nothing worthwhile to show for it.  If we're lucky, this our mid-life crisis at 40.  Some of us, though, only realize when it's too late.

This realization leads us to "find ourselves".  We pack our lives into a suitcase and travel around the world, or do a road trip, or some kind of nondescript journey of discovery until we arrive at a beautiful discovery...

We need to contribute.  We need meaning.  We need purpose.​

So, to summarise - what are we unhappy?  Because we're stuck on the hedonic tredmill, we have inner conflicts and our lives lack meaning.

When We Feel the Most Happy

An experiment called the "Experience Sampling Method" was performed on hundreds of adults over a period of a week to answer the question - when are people happy?

  • ​Participants in the study wore a pager for an entire week
  • The pager beeped 8 times per day on a random schedule
  • Upon receipt of each random signal, participants respond to questions about their objective situation and their subjective state at that moment
  • The questions were designed to figure out their levels of contentment at that particular point in time.

The results of the study revealed the following:

We feel the most happy when we are able to direct our attention wholeheartedly on a goal. All our psychic energy is pointing in the same direction.  We don't have any conflicts, we don't have any distractions and we engage ourselves fully with the task in hand.

During this time, we are "in the zone".  We forget ourselves.  Our perception of time is lost and we often do these things at great cost just for the pleasure of the activity itself.  We are so engaged that nothing else matters.  

Lower level emotions such as fear, anxiety, worry, jealousy are all non existent.  ​We focus so heavily on the task in hand that we lose our perception of self.

In short: everything is in alignment and there are no conflicts.  This is the polar opposite to our default state of psychic entropy. ​ This is a peak experience state of consciousness that's called Flow.

People who frequently experience flow in their lives are happier.  The good news is that we can learn to get flow into our lives more often. 

How to Achieve Flow More Often in Our Lives

Flow is a state that can be encouraged through conscious effort both internally and externally.  

In other words, we can learn certain personality traits that are suited for flow (internal) and change the environment around us so that the conditions for flow are more readily met (external).

The Autotelic Personality - Our "Inner Game"

How we react to the things that happen to us is a crucial piece of the happiness jigsaw.

While we can't always control what happens to us, we can control our interpretations and response.  Interpretation is a skill that, if exercised and strengthened, can free ourselves from the everyday ups and downs of our environment.

"The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who 'possess' it are called survivors and are said to have resilience or courage."

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

The key point is that two people can have the same thing happen to them yet react in completely opposite ways.  One person may derive engagement, happiness and liberation while the other may suffer intolerably.  The only difference between the two lies in how they interpret the event.

I'm sure you've met someone who has an amazing ability to take a positive event and somehow shine a negative light on it.  The type of person who receives a promotion at work but, rather than celebrating the success, complains about how long it took to happen.   This kind of person will often be wallowing self pity, anxiety and other negative emotions.  This person has developed the skill of interpreting events in such away that she is often unhappy.

Well, the opposite is also possible.  We can train ourselves to interpret even seemingly terrible events into positive flow experiences.  The type of people who are best at doing that have what's called an autotelic personality.  

Here are the main traits of someone with an autotelic personality:-

  1. Highly curious - autotelic people have many interests and often spend a lot of time thinking about and deconstructing them.  Things that most people take for granted puzzle them; and until they figure them out in an original yet perfectly appropriate way, they will not let them be.
  2. Low Self-Centeredness - autotelic people don't spend a lot of time focusing on themselves - They don't fix their attention on lower emotions such as anxiety, fear and jealousy, to name but a few.  Instead they are immersed in the world around them; other people, ideas, events, things.  
  3. Intrinsic motivation - people with an autotelic personality often do things for the sheer satisfaction of doing rather than for any kind of external reward.  They do these things because they derive enjoyment and external motivation like money and success isn't their key motivational drive.
  4. Autonomous and independent - autotelic people lead extremely grounded lives and are more resilient to the ups and downs of external forces.   They are self-driven and don't concern themselves with seeking validation from other people.
  5. Non materialistic - autotelic people tend not to care much about material possessions because they derive their satisfaction from their frequent periods of flow.  They are also less likely to chase superficial things like fame or fortune.
  6. Don't require much in the way of comfort - autotelic people have the ability of transforming regular, ordinary experiences into optimal experiences of flow without relying on comforts.  Even a situation that may seem uncomfortable to most of us can be transformed into a period of enjoyment for a highly skilled autotelic person.  

    Viktor Frankl is an extreme example of this: Despite being held captive he was able to transform an extremely uncomfortable situation into one of freedom and serenity.

    Here's a great quote to illustrate this:-

    "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

    Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

Autotelic people consciously turn their external world into flow experiences by making everything a bit like a game.  They turn things that might seem unenjoyable to most of us into a challenge that they can attack.  

For example, a worker on the production line of a factory who is one small cog in a large machine has to do the same repetitive movement hundreds of times per day.  Most of us would consider this job boring, tedious and unenjoyable and would spend the majority of our day wishing the time away. 

Yet, an autotelic person might approach this job in the same way that an olympic athlete approaches the 100 meter sprint.  He knows that it usually takes 43 seconds to prepare each unit but is hell-bent on trying to find more efficient and faster ways of working to set a new record.  While on the assembly line he is constantly analyzing every movement he takes to find new ways of optimizing his performance - he is constantly trying to push the barrier.

Let's break down what's happening here.  A seemingly mundane and repetitive task has been interpreted in such a way that it becomes enjoyable:-

  1. He sets goals - his goal is to try and beat his existing 43 second record for a unit
  2. He is immersed in the activity - he's pushing himself to operate at the edge of his ability by trying to work a bit faster which requires all of his concentration and focus. 
  3. He is paying attention to what is happening - he's questioning every movement to try and find ways of optimizing them.

His interpretation of events, something that is completely under his control, is transforming almost certain boredom into full engagement and flow.  These autotelic personality traits can bring us far greater periods of enjoyment in our life.

Here are some more examples of the difference between "normal" thinking and autotelic thinking:-

  1. ​Working in a noisy environment with screaming kids - our normal reaction might be one of anger, annoyance and disdain towards the noisy group of people.  We could, however, see this situation as an opportunity to practice our concentration and ability to focus.
  2. We've been waiting in line for 30 minutes - we might get distressed, focus on how much time we've wasted and start to get angry towards the company/organisation for not having an efficient system.  We could, however, consciously notice this feeling of anger emerge, question it and work through in our minds the usefulness of it.  
  3. Our job is to cold call people every day - we may start to get tired and bored of people hanging up, being rude and feel a lack of engagement with what we're doing.  We could, however, consciously create some kind of test to systematically change our sales pitch and the time of day we call people to gather data.  We can use this data to, over time, incrementally improve our performance and increase our conversion rate.  It becomes more like a game for us.

Of course there are an infinite number of ways to approach any of these scenarios.  What intrigues me, may not intrigue you, it's subjective.  The main point is that we can consciously look for deeper meaning in all that we do and transform everyday events into periods of mental engagement that we enjoy.

Changing our External Environment to Create Conditions of Flow

Aside from cultivating an autotelic personality, we can also purposely manipulate our environment such that they are optimised for engagement.

To increase the chance of reaching a state of flow, certain conditions need to be met:-

  1. ​We confront tasks that are at the right level for our ability - brushing our teeth, by itself, is not going to be conducive to getting into a state of flow.  This type of habitual activity is so easy for us that we have hardly any kind of mental engagement with it, it's automatic for us.

    The opposite is also true, though.  If we try to confront a task that is so far beyond the limits of our current ability that we feel that we have no chance of completing it, then we also tend to disengage.  For example, as someone has never really rock climbed before, I can't go and climb an overhanging treacherous cliff and expect to enjoy it and get into a state of flow.  

    However, if we can find tasks that allow us to operate just beyond the edge of our existing ability such that it requires all our mental focus, then that's more likely to produce periods of flow.  Rather than taking on a treacherous cliff, then, I should first attack a beginner level wall that's challenging for me and take on ever increasingly difficult challenges as my ability grows.

    Of course, as I get better at rock climbing, I should commit to taking on increasingly difficult climbs in order to keep the difference between my ability and the degree of difficulty in balance.
  2. We receive feedback - we need to have as "immediate as possible" feedback for our performance.  We need to understand how well we are doing, whether we are making progress to our goals and be left with a clear understanding of how we can improve.  

    Doing something without having any idea of how we are performing can make us feel like our work is meaningless and leave us with no sense of direction, like we're just floating along.  Not only this, but we'll also not be able to grow, which is a necessary prerequisite for long term engagement, something that's called becoming increasingly complex.
  3. We have clear and actionable goals - we must know what we are working towards.  This can come in the form of a larger end goal with realistic sub goals along the way.  The main point is that we have a target, something that we genuinely believe that we can achieve if we apply ourselves to it.

    One caveat about goals: they must be appropriately set.  If we are set a goal and we don't really believe that we can achieve it, then we're less inclined to apply ourselves to try and achieve it out of worry that all our effort will be for nothing.

The simplest way to remember how to design your environment for flow is to design it like a game. 

Let's say you're responsible for managing a team of customer support workers.  

This type of role, where you're continually replying to customers all day long, has the potential to really bore the team.  Imagine a setup where each member of the support team does some basic training to get them up to a certain level but then they're static. They don't really have any direction for growth and they're not really sure what their success is measured against.  They don't have any way of seeing how well they're doing and therefore don't have any goals to work towards.  They're simply replying to customers all day until it's time to go home.  Every day is the same.

However imagine if you could turn customer support into a game:  

  • Every time a customer closes a ticket they are sent a survey to feed back what they felt of their customer service experience.  This score is then sent back to the support team member, but added to reports that the whole team can see (to entice competition).
  • Each support member is given a target satisfaction rating for each month.  Each month there is a review on how well the team member has done and a new target for the following month.
  • The team are also set customer satisfaction, time to reply and speed of resolution goals that the whole team can clearly see.  If the team meets these goals, then they'll receive some kind of reward at the end of each month.
  • All these metrics are recorded over time so that everyone can see the progress and growth that's being made.
  • The customer support role is broken down into various individual skills such as communication, speed, customer empathy, technical knowledge and so on. Each month, the customer support agent should make their case to demonstrate how they've improved in each of these verticals and is given a rating that corresponds to how well they're doing.
  • Every week, one member of the team must give a presentation to the rest of the team showing them something new that they've learned.

By taking time to design a customer support "game", each member of the team will have much more chance of engagement in their work.

In short: we can optimize both our internal and external environments to experience flow more often in our lives.

Why Flow is so Important to Cultivate

At the fundamental level, cultivating this sense of flow is important because people who manage to achieve such peak experiences regularly are happier and more fulfilled.  But what does this translate to in more specific terms?  

People who experience regular bouts of flow:

  • lead more vigorous lives
  • continually learn new things
  • are hardly ever bored - can make jobs and tasks richer in their mind
  • can take in stride things that come their way
  • are in control of their emotions rather than being solely dependent on external stimulus
  • enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult
  • have order in consciousness (don't suffer from the psychic entropy problem described above)

The key point is that people who have the ability to get themselves into a state of flow can interpret pretty much any situation, even those that most of us would be unable to derive any satisfaction from, and interpret it in such a way that it's an enjoyable and engaging experience for them.

The Challenges of Flow

Most people are able to teach themselves the skill of achieving flow in everyday situations.  It's a skill that pretty much anyone can learn.

However some people experience difficulties fully engaging with the world around them.  

One way this can commonly manifest itself is if someone has excessive self consciousness such that they are "stuck in their heads".  For example, someone might be:-

  • constantly worried about how other people perceive her
  • afraid of creating the wrong impression or of doing something inappropriate

These type of people are so worried and anxious about how they are perceived that they can't turn their focus outwards onto the external environment.

Other people may find it difficult to get into a state of flow because of attention disorders. Perhaps they have chemical imbalances in the brain such that they're constantly in a state of psychic entropy so their mind is never fully in alignment.

Key Takeaways from this Book

There are a few key points that this book really drives home:-

  1. We are responsible for our happiness.  We can develop the ability to transform pretty much any experience into a positive one if we take the time to learn the skills of an autotelic personality
  2. Treat things like a game.  If we ever find ourselves bored or disengaged with our work or any kind of activity that we're doing then we should look for ways to turn it into a game either internally in our own head, or externally by manipulating the environment around us.
  3. Work has a bad brand.  Studies show that people tend to be happier at work when they are busy and engaged than in their so-called leisure time perched mindlessly in front of the TV.  

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