Angry Robot


The flow state depends on the goals of the individual matching the situation in which she finds herself. The task itself must have clear goals and immediate feedback. It must also be matched to the individual’s abilities. If the task is too hard, stress is the result; if too easy, the subject gets bored. As the author states:

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 … A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.

The book spends some time talking about autotelic personalities, the type of person most likely to enter flow frequently. These are essentially self-starters, those who are motivated intrinsically rather than by external rewards. While anyone can enter flow, the autotelic person has the ability to order his own consciousness – to choose how to focus attention. This kind of person is thus able to enjoy situations that would break other people. Csíkszentmihályi brings up many examples of prisoners who survive their ordeal by coming up with games and other activities to keep their minds busy.

That’s an underlying theme to the book – that happiness is something that is produced by the mind, not by external situations. If you think you have to wait for certain situations to happen for you to be happy, you’re missing out. I was actually surprised at how concerned this book is with happiness; I suppose I expected more of a science-of-consciousness approach, which is definitely present, but a lot of discussion of happiness occurs.

There are also many, many examples, no doubt gleaned from the thousands who were interviewed. But I found it a bit much at times, and the book felt a bit padded. Once you get the general principles, you don’t necessarily need to have examples of flow in teenagers, children, poor people, crazy people, bankers, the blind etc. etc. I guess I realized early on that in the terms of the book, I’m an autotelic personality who is in flow quite often. So maybe it wouldn’t seem so obvious and familiar to other readers.

The other flaw is the author’s rather judgmental tone, especially with regards to media. Reading is a great source of flow, apparently, along with art, music etc. But watching television is the anti-flow boogieman, brought up whenever Csíkszentmihályi needs a counter-example. It makes the book seem dated: maybe in 1975 (when some of the original research started), TV was a wasteland of unchallenging trash, but in the era of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men it seems a foolish generalization.

To take it a step further, my post about focus had some mention of of attention restoration theory and the necessity of involuntary attention – an undirected, relaxed state which is apparently necessary to recharge directed attention. Although the article it was from mentions TV as perhaps “too absorbing” to qualify, it would be interesting to hear attempts to integrate flow theory with that of attention restoration.

It’s a decent book, and the theory at its core is true to my experience anyway. I’m interested in pursuing this line of research further, so I’ll be reading more about attention, and presumably reporting back. Attention seems worthy of attention.