Book Notes: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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Table of Contents

High-Level Summary

Flow is a book all about the optimal experience. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was interested in finding out when exactly people feel most happy. Through his research, he found that happiness is not something that just happens. It’s cultivated.

This book dives into principles and evidence to show how one can transform a seemingly meaningless life into one with meaning and enjoyment.

The name of the book is derived from the state that Mihaly uses to describe this optimal experience. When people are in “flow,” they experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and total involvement with life. 

One goal of the book is to equip the reader with the tools and knowledge for them to enter flow as often as possible during their life.

Link To Book

Flow can be found on Amazon at this link here if you are interested in reading.

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Top 35 Takeaways

* In no particular order

1. Happiness is not something that happens. Happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.

2. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness.

3. The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives

4. The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind. “The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of J. H. Holmes. “It is simply indifferent.”

5. How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. We must learn to achieve mastery over consciousness itself. The roots of the discontent are internal, and each person must untangle them personally, with his or her own power.

6. Why is it that, despite having achieved previously undreamed-of miracles of progress, we seem more helpless in facing life than our less privileged ancestors were? The answer seems clear: while humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience.

7. To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.

8. It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response built into our genes for the preservation of the species, not for the purpose of our own personal advantage. The pleasure we take in eating is an efficient way to ensure that the body will get the nourishment it needs.

9. The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.

10. Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events—such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions it is useful to think of it as psychic energy.

11. One of the main forces that affects consciousness adversely is psychic disorder—that is, information that conflicts with existing intentions, or distracts us from carrying them out. We give this condition many names, depending on how we experience it: pain, fear, rage, anxiety, or jealousy.

12. Whenever information disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals we have a condition of inner disorder, or psychic entropy, a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness.

13. A new piece of information will either create disorder in consciousness, by getting us all worked up to face the threat, or it will reinforce our goals, thereby freeing up psychic energy.

14. The opposite state from the condition of psychic entropy is optimal experience. When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly.

15. We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term many of the people we interviewed had used in their descriptions of how it felt to be in top form: “It was like floating,” “I was carried on by the flow.”

16. When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve,

17. 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. Neither of these strategies is effective when used alone.

18. The overwhelming proportion of optimal experiences are reported to occur within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules—activities that require the investment of psychic energy, and that could not be done without the appropriate skills.

19. In all the activities people in our study reported engaging in, enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities. In all the activities people in our study reported engaging in, enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities.

20. Autotelic experience. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward. Playing the stock market in order to make money is not an autotelic experience; but playing it in order to prove one’s skill at foretelling future trends is.

21. For quite a few people free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.

22. One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment. Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did.

23. The traits that mark an autotelic personality are most clearly revealed by people who seem to enjoy situations that ordinary persons would find unbearable. The traits that mark an autotelic personality are most clearly revealed by people who seem to enjoy situations that ordinary persons would find unbearable. Essentially the same ingenuity in finding opportunities for mental action and setting goals is reported by survivors of any solitary confinement

24. The body in flow: The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring. The challenges of the activity are what force us to concentrate.

25. Listening to music wards off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences. Even greater rewards are open to those who learn to make music. In learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonies their whole consciousness would become ordered.

26. To enjoy a mental activity, one must meet the same conditions that make physical activities enjoyable. There must be skill in a symbolic domain; there have to be rules, a goal, and a way of obtaining feedback.

27. Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. Without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment:

28. Autotelic workers. Occasionally cultures evolve in such a way as to make everyday productive chores as close to flow activities as possible. The more a job inherently resembles a game the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.

29. The paradox of work. Even when they feel good, people generally say that they would prefer not to be working, that their motivation on the job is low. The converse is also true: when supposedly enjoying their hard-earned leisure, people generally report surprisingly low moods; yet they keep on wishing for more leisure.

30. The waste of free time. Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

31. STUDIES ON FLOW have demonstrated repeatedly that more than anything else, the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.

32. Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.

33. The autotelic self. The difference between someone who enjoys life and someone who is overwhelmed by it is a product of a combination of such external factors and the way a person has come to interpret them—that is, whether he sees challenges as threats or as opportunities for action. The “autotelic self” is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony.

34. It is true that life has no meaning, but it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying.

35. Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions: Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future? Is the price that I—and others—will have to pay worth it? Will I be able to live with myself if I accomplish it?

10 Actions You Should Take

1. Find the balance in an activity between it being boring and overwhelming. When an activity is too easy, you get bored. When it is too hard, you will be overwhelmed and may cease to continue the activity.

2. Continually stretch your skills. As you improve, reach for higher challenges. One simple way to find challenges is to enter, or create, a competitive situation.

3. When times or circumstances are unpleasant, try to find a way to make it an autotelic experience. Work to develop the ability to enjoy situations that ordinary people would find unbearable.

4. Be conscious of how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. You choose to be bothered by certain things. You can also choose not to be bothered by them. The roots of discontent are internal. Stresses and pressures are subjective.

5. Try to derive pleasure from the present. When you are so fixated on the future, or the next best thing, you deprive yourself of feeling joy in the present. The goal post keeps extending as expectations rise.

6. Practice the ability to focus attention at will. Become oblivious to distractions to concentrate as long as it takes to achieve a goal.

7. Devote time to recharge your mind. Fully disconnect from stimulation. For example, on breaks, do not watch TV or scroll through your phone. Rest, or take a walk outdoors.

8. Don’t assume that just because you have leisure time, you will experience enjoyment. You have to structure your leisure time.

9. Give order to your thoughts. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment.

10. Maintain healthy relationships with others. Relationships are a major dictator on your quality of life. People are a great source of enjoyable experiences.

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Author: Brandon Hill

Brandon is the creator of Bizness Professionals and author behind each post. He is currently a working professional, primarily in finance, and looks to provide resources to aspiring or current young professionals for well-rounded professional and personal development. Find out more on the About page.

There may be affiliate links on this page, which means I may receive a small commission for any purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Products that are linked are ones I highly recommend and have used/tested myself.

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