Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi | Flow

Flow | Dr. Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is a common word in the vernacular of anyone studying positive psychology. Intuitively most people get the general concept. A good working definition is having the feeling of fusion with an on-going activity, effortlessly and fluidly (offered by Dr. Bloch in her article Flow: Beyond Fluidity and Rigidity. A Phenomenological Investigation). Most people believe they have an abundance of Flow in their life when in reality it is a fairly difficult state to obtain. We get in our own way with regards to Flow simply because most feel the need to be in complete command of a situation.

The Godfather of Flow, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defined flow in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as the “experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement,” and “a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation” in anything we love doing.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi stumbled upon Flow in his youth. As a child growing up in Hungary Mihaly saw how many in Hungarian society were affected by war, many devastated because of the loss of their social status and/or finances. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi wanted to avoid the perils of this negativity and see if he could find meaning outside the confines of what was happening around him. In his own words, he wanted to, “live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events.”

He was intrigued and studied why some people did not lose their sense of self during this time, even after losing everything, where as others were devastated and were not able to reclaim their sense of worth. He discovered that people found pleasure in very profoundly different ways. As Csikszentmihalyi matured he continued to be fascinated by this and conducted hundreds of interviews with people from different walks of life including athletes, artists and CEOs to discover what compelled their passions.

He continued to find people define this state very differently but discovered a common theme, that people that really enjoy internal pleasures described enjoying those pleases like being in a trance. He began to develop a concept of Flow, that of being an extremely productive and fulfilling state where one forgets about their self and is extremely focused at the task at hand.

He observed that people experiencing flow do not notice fear, they do not really keep a mental record of what they are doing and actions are instinctual. That is not to say that you can find Flow in routine tasks, on the contrary the mundane has been shown to hinder flow because the lack of challenge does not provide the right stimulus.

So what does Flow mean (in the mind of Dr. Csikszentmihalyi):

  1. Concentration – being completely involved and focused
  2. Elation
  3. Inner clarity – clearly seeing tasks and executing them flawlessly
  4. Confidence
  5. Serenity – complete self-trust and lack of fear
  6. Timeliness – absorbed in the Now
  7. Intrinsic motivation – doing for the sake of doing

As I previously discussed achieving flow cannot be found in the mundane, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi believes there needs to be balance between skill and challenge. It is the sweet spot between arousal and control. Too much arousal and you might get anxious about the outcome, too much familiarity and control and boredom may get the best of you. Find the balance between the two and you are able to fully engage yourself in a desirable state.