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Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Buch-Review - Hannes Kleist - 16.10.2020

Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience

I stumbled into the topic of “Flow” the other day while reading up on cravings and addiction.

I suddenly remembered a time when I was coding 10 hours a day, time flew, I was at ease, no doubt in my mind, I felt all-powerful, challenged — yet somehow up to the task, learning and improving like crazy. I felt perfectly fulfilled and happy.

While building a company I somehow lost that over the last decade.

I want my team and me to feel that again. To do great things and learn. So I made it my mission to rebuild my life and the company around Flow.

The term was invented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronunciation: Mee-high Chick-sent-mee-high) in the 90ies after researching “flow” for years. So I started with his classic 1990 book.

Chapter 1: Happiness Revisited

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. How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences.

Basically: You have to decide how you want to feel.

Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live.

What more can you wish for?

There is no way out of this predicament except for an individual to take things in hand personally.


This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present.

Naaah. I got this!

Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians.

Oh, I love that metaphor.

Progress is relatively fast in fields that apply knowledge to the material world, such as physics or genetics. But it is painfully slow when knowledge is to be applied to modify our own habits and desires.

That’s why it’s rare!

Chapter 2: The Anatomy of Consciousness

It seems we can manage at most seven bits of information — discriminate between one set of bits and another is about 1/18 of a second. By using these figures one concludes that it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second, or 7,560 per minute, or almost half a million per hour.

This is a brilliant way to measure “attention”.

To understand what another person is saying we must process 40 bits of information each second. If we assume the upper limit of our capacity to be 126 bits per second, it follows that to understand what three people are saying simultaneously is theoretically possible.

Interesting way to put it.

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.

That’s what you train with mindfulness meditation.

Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.

What more can you ask for ;-)

Chapter 3: Enjoyment and the Quality of Life

Given these observations, instead of worrying about how to make a million dollars or how to win friends and influence people, it seems more beneficial to find out how everyday life can be made more harmonious and more satisfying.

Yessir. Right away, sir!

Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur.

This is the most important thing I learned in the last years: Pleasures != Happiness

To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.

Here come the eight requirements of Flow:

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun. Often children — and adults — need external incentives to take the first steps in an activity that requires a difficult restructuring of attention.

So you can use incentives to kick start an activity, but the activity needs to be shaped in a way to achieve the 8 requirements of Flow.

Chapter 4: Conditions of Flow

Pitching Flow:

It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.

Chapter 5: The Body in Flow

What we found was that when people were pursuing leisure activities that were expensive in terms of the outside resources required — they were significantly less happy than when involved in inexpensive leisure.

So: Find a hobby that requires investment in gear and lessons like golf or skiing.

Chapter 6: The Flow of Thought

It is relatively easy to concentrate when attention is structured by outside stimuli, such as when a movie is playing on. But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself.

That’s why we love watching TV or social media: The monkey mind shuts up and we can for a moment at least shut out the terror of existence.

Attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. People are naturally eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available, as long as it distracts attention from turning inward and dwelling on negative feelings. The better route for avoiding chaos in consciousness, of course, is through habits that give control over mental processes.

Isn’t that weird? When left alone our mind dwells on negative thoughts, but we actively try to run away from it. While the solution would simply be to explore negative things.

To acquire such habits requires practice, however, and the kind of goals and rules that are inherent in flow activities.

No shit!

A person who can remember stories, poems, lyrics of songs, baseball statistics, chemical formulas, mathematical operations, historical dates, biblical passages, and wise quotations has many advantages over one who has not cultivated such a skill. She can always amuse herself, and find meaning in the contents of her mind.

I do not belong to that group of people, unfortunately.

Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories.

Exactly why I want to send my kids to a Montessori school.

Chapter 7: Work as Flow

To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary. On the one hand jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities. But it will also be necessary to help people develop autotelic personalities.

Autotelic means, people enjoy most activities intrinsically — even washing the dishes.

So why is it so challenging to build a great place to work:

One-fourth of the time on the job these average workers were daydreaming, gossiping, or engaged in personal business). Even though the momentary on-the-job experience may be positive, they tend to discount it, because it does not contribute to their own long-range goals.

And why is that:

The first and perhaps most important complaint concerns the lack of variety and challenge. The second has to do with conflicts with other people on the job, especially bosses. The third third reason involves burnout: too much pressure, too much stress, too little time to think for oneself, too little time to spend with the family.

Alright: I think we are on a good way with 2 and 3. But how do you create variety and challenge in a software development agency that is responding to client request?

Chapter 8: Enjoying Solitude and Other People

Yet unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration.

That is pretty hard for extroverts. For me: No biggy ;-)

A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life.

This is also something mindfulness meditation helps to build.

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude,” goes the old saying that Francis Bacon repeated, “is either a wild beast or a god.”

I wonder what I am then ;-))))))))

Talking about building Flow into your family life

Because if it is not, boredom and frustration will inevitably set in, and then the relationship is likely to break up unless there are strong external factors keeping it together. Positive goals are necessary to focus the psychic energies of parents and children on common tasks. In addition to long-term goals, it is imperative to have a constant supply of short-term objectives.


So most parents just give up, and abandon their teenagers to the peer culture. The more fruitful, if more difficult, strategy is to find a new set of activities that will continue to keep the family group involved. Lacking any meaningful outlet for their skills and creativity, they may turn to redundant partying, joyriding, malicious gossiping, or drugs and narcissistic introspection to prove to themselves that they are alive.


Friendship is not enjoyable unless we take up its expressive challenges. If a person surrounds himself with “friends” who simply reaffirm his public persona, who never question his dreams and desires. A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form.

But friendship takes work:

But later in life friendships rarely happen by chance: one must cultivate them as assiduously as one must cultivate a job or a family.

Chapter 9: Cheating Chaos

Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself.

Chapter 10: The Making of Meaning

So where does this lead long term?

Step 1: Basic “Me”

Each man or woman starts with a need to preserve the self, to keep the body and its basic goals from disintegrating.

Step 2: Group

The person may expand the horizon of his or her meaning system to embrace the values of a community — the family, the neighbourhood, a religious or ethnic group.

Step 3: Reflect on yourself again

The next step in development involves reflective individualism. The person again turns inward, finding new grounds for authority and value within the self.

Step 4: Enlightenment

The fourth step, which builds on all the previous ones, is a final turning away from the self, back toward an integration with other people and with universal values. In this final stage the extremely individualized person — like Siddhartha letting the river take control of his boat — willingly merges his interests with those of a larger whole.

Get the book on Amazon


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Hannes Kleist
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