Csikszentmihalyi: Flow


Hedonism Is Inadequate.
Human beings do not need pleasure above all else. People report enjoying watching TV, but often feel listless afterwards. “The future will belong not only to the educated man, but to the man who is educated to use his leisure wisely.” (pg 163, citing C.K. Brightbill).

Psychic Entropy Threatens Our Health.
Attention can be thought of as psychic energy reserves, and is a finite resource. Data bombards our senses continuously, the mind must try to organize and derive meaning from this flood of information. Failure to impose adequate structure leads to feelings of listlessness, boredom, and apathy.

Flow Introduces Structure To The Mind.
Another expression for flow is being “in the zone”.

On page 49, C enumerates distinctive phenomenological characteristics of enjoyment (flow):
1. Challenge: An achievable activity that engages skill sets.
2. Immersive: Awareness becomes fused to the activity (“in the moment”).
3. Clear Goals: Success is well-defined.
4. Clear Feedback: Participant can evaluate their performance reliably.
5. Focused attention: Everyday concerns are removed from attention.
6. Control: A sense of autonomous responsibility for action.
6. Muted self-awareness: Ego is suspended only to return, energized.
7. Time Distortions: Time moves quickly, or slowly, or seems irrelevant.

Flow only occurs when skills are well-matched with challenge intensity. If the flow activity continues to be experienced without change, personal skill can outpace challenge, leading to boredom. If the activity requires skills which outpace personal skill, this only introduces stress. The trick is to keep skills & challenges matched in an ascending cycle as the participant learns. As this two elements grow, so does the ability of the ego to bring order to psychic chaos.

Autotelic Personalities Find Internal Motivations Via Flow.

A distinction is made between exotelic and autotelic motives. Exotelic refers to commitments induced by external forces, autotelic desires directly emerge from the self. C uses this distinction to get at what he believes to be wrong about modern education.

On page 97, C describes a “formula” for how autotelic personalities typically transform simple physical actions into flow-producers:
1. Set an overall goal, and as many sub goals as are realistically feasible.
2. Find ways to measure progress in terms of the goals chosen.
3. Maintain concentration of task at hand, and make finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity.
4. Develop the skills necessary to better engage with available opportunities.
5. Keep raising the stakes when the activity becomes boring.

Flow Informs The Human Condition.

The remainder of the book goes on to apply this framework. Conditions that induce flow are explored, physical and mental flow activities are compared, social and philosophical implications are explored.


C gave me the impression that he was politically conservative at times, which is unusual for this kind of book. I found myself sympathetic to C’s argument against certain strains of multiculturalism: perhaps cultures can, in principle, be comparatively evaluated based on how well they fit to universally-human psychological structures.

I generally liked what C had to say. I largely agreed with his critiques of utilitarianism (that pleasure is the universal unit of value).

But the above points of agreements are little more than bookmarks. The book suffers from a fairly ubiquitous lack of empiricism. General principles are woven together, but precision and rigorous empirical research are undervalued. An example: C claims that the ability of flow to escalate skills & challenges improves the “complexity of the soul”, but nowhere is this loose concept truly nailed down.

Thus, I do not feel like I have emerged with a deeper knowledge of the human mind. For me, this book only served to refine my intuitions about which aspects of cognitive psychology deserve empirical attention.


“Dr Hamilton found that the students who reported less intrinsic motivation in daily life needed on the average to fix their eyes on more points before they could reverse the ambiguous figure, whereas students who on the whole found their lives more intrinsically rewarding required fewer points.” (pg 87)

“Bertrand Russell described bow he achieved personal happiness: ‘Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.’ There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an autotelic personality.” (pg 93)

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” (Francis Bacon, cited pg 173)