‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I have a simple system for knowing how much I enjoyed a non-fiction book: how many page corners did I fold down?

This is, it turns out, a highly controversial approach. I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of abuse that came my way when I posted my ‘look I’ve finished this book’ photo on Instagram. But despite it costing me a few friends, it is wonderfully effective – and I folded more corners of ‘Flow’ than I have any other book since ‘Sapiens’.

Flow, although written way back in 1990, is one of those books that keeps popping up in modern psychology books (along with the behavioural bible ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ which must be referenced at least five times in any new psychology book before a publisher will agree to publish it).

And the author of one of those books – Dan Pink, and the brilliant Drive – sums up the central argument wonderfully:

‘Flow, that delicious moment when the challenges we face are so exquisitely matched to our abilities that we lose sense of time, place, and self’

To achieve this, Csikszentmihalyi essentially gives two big bits of advice, which I paraphrase as ‘Create more than you consume’ and ‘Deep relationships matter more than shallow acquaintances’.

What he actually said is below (and in this TED talk from 2004). And if you prefer books to stay pristine, look away now…

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On what happiness really is:

  • Happiness does not depend on outside events, but how we interpret them… It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness
  • The primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness is that, contrary to the myths, religions, and philosophies we’ve developed to reassure ourselves, the universe was not created for our needs. Frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of our life.

The two ways to try and improve the quality of of life:

  • Try to change the external conditions to match our goals – this is very hard
  • Change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better – this is entirely within our control

So the goal is to become an Autotelic person – internally driven with a sense of purpose and curiosity, rather than  being externally driven, relying on things like money, power, attention, or fame for motivation.

Autotelic people:

  • Set themselves challenges that require skill, with clear goals
  • Become deeply immersed and involved in the activity that they’re doing
  • Pay attention to what’s happening, avoiding distractions
  • Learn to enjoy the immediate experience, and let go of concerns outside of that


On how to achieve ‘Flow’ in work:

  • People in jobs requiring skills and presenting a challenge often feel happy, creative and satisfied – more so than they do in their free time
  • The more a job represents a game – with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback – the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the workers level of development
  • Conflict at work is often due to someone feeling defensive out of fear of losing face. He sets goals for how others should treat him, rather than setting the challenge of reaching his own goals whilst helping his colleagues reach theirs

How to use free time:

  • Experiences that give pleasure can also give enjoyment, but the two sensations are quite different. A person can feel pleasure without any psychic effort (e.g. eating), but it is impossible to fully enjoy a sports game, book, or conversation unless attention is concentrated on the activity
  • Instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow ourselves, most of us spend many hours each week watching others – sportspeople, actors, musicians – experience it.
  • Mass leisure and culture, when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons – such as to flaunt ones status – absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return.
  • (In short, I think here he’s saying that you’ll get more fulfilment from learning to play the guitar that watching someone else play the guitar; from actively creating content on the internet than just scrolling through what everyone else has created)

On relationships:

  • Entering any relationship entails a transformation of the self and a shifting in expectations, but accepting the limitations that comes with those can be liberating (e.g. monogamy)
  • To be in flow, relationships must have a goal for their existence. These could be generic and long-term – a particular lifestyle, education, building an ideal home etc –  and with these regular short-term objectives e.g. buying a new sofa, going on a picnic, exploring a new country
  • Relationships should be differentiated (each person encouraged to develop unique traits and goals) and integrated (an understanding that what happens to one person will affect others, paying attention to each other and helping each other)
  • Feedback is crucial, including finding new activities to keep everyone involved and challenged
  • People are happier with their friends than they are with anyone else, because it usually involves common goals and activities.

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can find me:

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