Book review: Flow – The psychology of optimal experience

This book review was done during my studies for a Masters in Music Performance in Sep 2011.

Flow: The psychology of optimal experience

by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness.[1]

The question raised in this book is this: when do people feel most happy?


Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee) has written this book for a general audience in order to share the psychological research and concepts he has explored since the mid 1960s. In the preface he says that presenting such a topic outside of the formal constraints of academic writing is a precarious undertaking, as it would be easy to,” become careless or overly enthusiastic about such a topic.”[2] I can’t help but think that he is, perhaps, seeking to distance himself from the work of self-help gurus who might position their own ideas alongside his. Just in case, in the introduction he dispels any notion of this, “There is no promise of easy short-cuts in these pages.”[3]

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, is the C.S. and D.J. Davidson Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management and is also director of the Quality of Life Research centre. He was born 1934 in Fiume, Italy – now Rijeka, Croatia – of Hungarian dissent. He immigrated to the US in 1956 and still resides there.

The concept of flow is widely known in modern psychology and has been very influential in studies of human excellence and achievement.

I will give a brief outline of each chapter of the book, then explore some of the major themes in more depth and how they relate to myself as a practicing musician. There are some terms that require definitions to clarify the author’s connotation, which I will present as they arise in the discussion.

Chapter 1 “Happiness revisited” is a general discussion of happiness, the state of human existence and how we currently pursue happiness. The seeds of what drive the pursuit of happiness plus biology and socially motivated factors, are discussed.

Chapter 2 “The anatomy of consciousness” is about the structure and function of consciousness: what are its elements, what is it for, how is it possible to study it, the role and structure of the self, and how this effects our quality of life. It is emphasized that consciousness is a biological function, not some mystical process.

Chapter 3 “Enjoyment and the quality of life” discusses the strategies we use to achieve happiness. The research is presented which outlines 8 factors that recur in the experience of flow. These are discussed in more detail, along with the idea that we can instigate flow by following them as a set of guidelines or rules.

Chapter 4 “The conditions of flow” is about why flow activities occur, and what conditions are favorable. This allows us to design them consciously. The reason behind flow activities such as games, or music are revealed to have a number of the conditions for flow inbuilt. Cultures retain activities that produce flow, and the characteristics of the, reportedly, most happy cultures are considered.

In Chapter 5 “The body in flow” the ability to raise the quality of experience through training the body and the senses is discussed. A number of areas commonly used to order consciousness, such as physical challenge, movement, sex, sight, music, and food. Yoga and the martial arts are shown to be methods to achieve specific kinds of flow activities, concepts that have never evolved in the west.

In Chapter 6 “The Flow of thought” the mind is discussed as a great source of flow experiences, and that, in any flow activity, the mind must be present. Cultivating the mind, through exercising it’s capabilities and improving the vital aspects, such as memory, show how psychic order can be achieved. Conversely, the shortcomings of some external activities, such as television, are laid bare.

Chapter 7 is titled, “The flow of work”. Most people report wanting more leisure and less work, even though they also report more flow at work and more apathy during leisure time. This contradiction is and the reasons behind it, such as social stereotypes, are discussed.

In Chapter 8 “Enjoying solitude and other people” the need for both human interaction and solitude are discussed. How the rules of flow can influence relations with family and friends is presented. The development of personality and the inner mechanisms for dealing with experience are also referenced.

In Chapter 9 “Cheating Chaos” a number of victims of tragedy and the way they have coped with their experiences are offered to illustrate the possibility to control what experience means. The idea of dissipative structures, which I will later discuss in more depth, as a mechanism for dealing with experience, is laid out.

Chapter 10 is titled, “The making of meaning”. In the final chapter, the need for a unifying life theme, from which all other goals and challenges derive is discussed. Looking forward, Csikszentmihalyi offers views on what will be required of us to improve life for our descendants, through the marriage of science, religion and human consciousness.


What is happiness? Happiness is identified as being those moments when people are most engaged in life. There is a sense of participating in the content of life.

Csikszentmihalyi calls this experience flow, which was the word people used most frequently when reporting this state of optimal experience.

Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.[4]

Reports of flow are remarkably consistent across the globe in terms of describing optimal experience, even though the activities might be completely unrelated.

The state of flow is made possible by what Csikszentmihalyi terms the ordering of consciousness. One must overcome psychic disorder to achieve happiness, and flow is the most powerful way to order consciousness.

Cultures have evolved various ways of ordering consciousness such as religion, arts and games.

What is needed to succeed in the search for happiness is moment-to-moment enjoyment of life. What that requires is not genetically imprinted; it must be learned anew each generation. But it is not enough to know how to do it – you must do it, for it to be successful.

In modern society the symbols of happiness (wealth, power, status) are overwhelming. But there is little evidence that those who achieve these symbols lead happy lives. In the end to improve the quality of life we must learn how to improve the quality of experience.

Consciousness, attention and self

We achieve order in consciousness through how we pay attention to experience, and how completely we focus.

The events that constitute consciousness – the things we see, feel, think, and desire – are information that we can manipulate and use. Thus we might think of consciousness as being intentionally ordered information.[5]

Attention is the most important factor in being able to focus, which is in turn the most important aspect in controlling consciousness, and therefore quality of life. “The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.”[6]

There are limits to the nervous system: differentiation of information takes about 1/18th second; we can process about 126 bits of information per second. If we undertake activities that take all of our processing power, we cannot focus on anything more. This is a vital understanding if one is seeking to control conscious order.

Attention is limited by what consciousness can calculate, “It cannot notice or hold in focus more information than can be processed simultaneously.”[7]

We can, of course, chunk information: symbols, motor skills etc. This reduces a sequence of activities to a smaller amount of information, such as when learning to drive a car. At the beginning there is too much simultaneous information to deal with, but we learn to group information and attend to those actions that control more than one event at a time.

We structure our attention through focused effort on the things we pursue – a musician focuses on musical skills and discernment beyond what the average person can focus on. Our experience of a situation is entirely dependent on where we focus our attention. Csikszentmihalyi refers to attention as psychic energy and, like energy it is transferred into other forms by using it. For us, it is transformed into whatever we spend it on in life.

Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.[8]

The self is built from everything that has passed into consciousness over the experience of our lives. It represents, symbolically, our hierarchy of goals and the inter-relations of our contents of consciousness.

Experience depends on the way we invest psychic energy- on the structure of attention. This, in turn, is related to goals and intentions. These processes are connected to each other by the self, or the dynamic mental representation we have of the entire system of goals.

Psychic disorder is the enemy of ordered consciousness in that it is information that conflicts with or distracts us from our goals. This is easily understood in the context of a musician. We have little nagging doubts about our technical ability, or lack of theoretical knowledge, or even self-consciousness about how we look. Any of these things can keep us from fully being present in the flow of our music. It is by engaging our total attention that we dismiss any fears or doubts.

I have found this knowledge a useful theoretical foundation to support activities that aim to eliminate doubts and fears. It also strengthens my resolve to focus more intently on the challenges at hand to dispel distractions, rather than rationalize them away; which is rarely, if ever, successful.


Flow states result in the organization of the self becoming more complex.

Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies.[9]

Flow orders consciousness because, in that state, the mind becomes entirely focused on a singular purpose. All parts of the mind work in concert. A sense of connection with the environment is often reported. “When we choose a goal to invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable.”[10]

The rules of Flow

The key distinction between an enjoyable activity and a pleasurable one, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is that pleasure does not require attention whereas enjoyment does. Pleasure may help maintain a sense of order in consciousness, but of the two, only enjoyment can offer complexity. Learning is the name we give enjoyable effort.

Research has identified eight stages in the flow experience. The following is a summary of each stage:

  1. A task we may complete
  2. We must be able to concentrate
  3. Clear goals
  4. Immediate feedback
  5. Undistracted involvement
  6. Sense of control over actions
  7. Self disappears
  8. Time is altered in some way.

For a musician, using this kind of plan is helpful because we do things that are both easily measureable, and things that are difficult to measure. This helps to structure some guidelines for the more ambiguous tasks facing an artist. By having to account for something in each of these respects gives us some kind of point of reference from day to day. This encourages a sense of progress.


It is not uncommon to repeatedly carry out what we think are constructive activities, that are in fact unproductive. Modern workers report more flow activities at work. But they also report wanting more leisure time, even though their own responses have shown this is when they experience more apathy. This demonstrates that people will ignore their own senses and base actions, or state desires, on socially conditioned stereotypes.

Musicians face the same pressures to conform as anyone else. But the performers we most admire are usually unique in some way. The difficulty in holding to your goals is an ability that must be cultivated. Fortunately we can model a personality type that is capable of such a skill.

The autotelic personality

From auto meaning self and telos meaning goal, refers to someone who undertakes an activity for the activity itself, not the outcome. Someone with this kind of personality can find meaningful experience in any task they undertake.

The autotelic personality displays a few simple traits.

1. Setting goals – learn to set them with a minimum of fuss. Recognise that goals and challenges imply each other. These in turn suggest the skills required to take on the challenge. This is clearly linked to the process of closely monitoring feedback. One must be aware that the goal is yours, your choice. This does two things: it gives clear ownership of the goal to the individual, and it gives them the power to alter a goal when it no longer makes sense.

2. Becoming immersed in the activity – the key to this point is matching the opportunities to act with sufficient skills so as to become absorbed in the goal. To achieve this, one must seek to always improve the ability to concentrate.

3. Paying attention to what is happening – this requires constant inputs of attention, and constant feedback on which to focus. This allows attention to be fully used in the activity, not admitting self-consciousness. In the process the self grows greatly as one feels much closer to the activity than is possible when the self constantly interferes.

4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience – from all these other events arises the possibility that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy. If truly experienced as a flow activity, anything can be a deeply satisfying experience that will enrich one’s life.

Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, described how he achieved personal happiness: ”Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects; the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.” There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an auotelic personality.[11]

Ordering chaos

Our subjective experience of life is our life. Improvement of our quality of life means improving the quality of our experience.

How well people cope is certainly mitigated by external factors, but in the end it is our internal coping mechanisms that will determine the quality of our experience. In the face of adversity, we withdraw or we may confront it. We will often do something of both. Courage is one of the most admired character traits a person can demonstrate, with good reason; the ability to overcome adversity is a desirable genetic trait.

Dissipative structures are ways to turn chaos into order. This ability to transform any experience into a flow experience commonly follows three steps. Firstly, unselfconscious self-assurance. The ability to function within the environment in which you find yourself without being in conflict with it. Secondly, focusing your attention externally. The more closely you link with the outside environment, the better your chances of understanding it, and the more likely attention will be too busy to worry. Thirdly, the discovery of new solutions. Being too attached to your own preconceived agenda can leave you blind to other possibilities that may be available.

Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to a set of rules.[12]

No one will live a life in which his or her goals, genetic or social, will not be threatened in some way. Quality of life will be determined by how well you can transform these inevitable intrusions into enjoyable challenges. These dissipative structures are the means by which this is achieved and require that you pay as much attention as possible to your life. Distractions will only hinder the process.

Playing in groups is a common situation in which musicians encounter these kinds of challenges. And it is exactly this skill set that determines how enjoyable one will find the experience. Simply recognising setbacks or intrusions as potentially enjoyable challenges is a vital personal characteristic to develop if one is to successfully have the benefit of a fruitful musical life.


Flow experiences by themselves are not enough to ensure an optimal experience of life. There is a need for a unifying purpose to make the most of ones life. As musicians we go through many stages of influence and development. It is often only after a great deal of experience that we start to define our own voice. The concept of flow is aimed at this same goal. The outcome of flow is complexity of the self, and this kind of complexity is the key ingredient in uniqueness. The advantage flow offers, is that it can reduce the weight of fears and doubts, at least during the activities themselves.

A number of philosophers have recognized this need for purpose, Heidegger, Satre and Merleau-Ponty among them. They have called this need the project.

Existential philosophers sometimes call it a life project or life theme. A life theme can be categorized in two ways: an authentic theme (one that you yourself discover) or an inauthentic theme (one that you accept from society, family etc). A life theme must embody a goal difficult enough that all other smaller goals in life arise from its complexity.

A life theme is really an answer to the age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Taken with the rules of flow in mind, we can answer this question but our answer is our life and the meaning we create in it. Life can be given meaning; but it does not come built into the fabric of living. The meaning of our goals is determined by our commitment to them. If I set a goal for myself but give up at the first sign of difficulty, my goal is revealed as impotent. But if I dedicate my life and every waking moment to achieve my goal against all kind of opposition, its worth is undisputed. Worthiness, it seems, is measured by the commitment of those who seek it.


I think that, at times, Csikszentmihalyi does cross the line into mild sensationalism, but it is more in style than substance. The layout of the book, with fairly comprehensive notes at the end, leaves open the opportunity to explore specific areas further. Another reviewer was bothered by the personal references in the notes (he quotes from personal letters, for example) but I had no problem with this. There are quotes that are somewhat clichéd now, but it did not detract from the subject for me.

Flow offers a way of thinking about how to enjoy life in any moment. The rules are fairly straight forward, and are not really anything new. But most people report unfulfilling, even boring lives. There is no question a great amount of discipline and commitment is required to take advantage of the ideas presented here. The potential rewards are high; a meaningful enjoyable life.

In a way, flow offers a release from the rat race. If we can learn to deeply enjoy any activity, why not do easy things? But built into the notion of flow is an upward spiral of increasing complexity that relishes challenge, and it’s hard to imagine how that would not lead one to try more taxing aspirations.

As a musician the obstacles to overcome are many, and the skill of enjoying them is one that we must cultivate. In this book, Csikszentmihalyi offers some potentially invaluable tools and insights toward this end.

Ideally, the end of extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically. At that point the goal of studying is not to make the grade, earn a diploma, and find a good job. Rather, it is to understand what is happening around one, to develop a personally meaningful sense of what one’s experience is all about.[13]

Other reviews

I looked at a number of other reviews for this book, including the New York Times book review[14] and the Academy of Management Review[15]. These were mostly short reviews that did not go into any depth. This might be due to the book being more of a popular psychology release, rather than an academic publication.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, HarperCollins.

Mirvis, P. (1990). “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.” Academy of Management Review.

Tavris, C. (1990). Contentment is hard work. New York Times. New York, New York Times Book Review.

[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, HarperCollins.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 26.

[6] Ibid, 33.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 42.

[11] Ibid, 93.

[12] Ibid, 179.

[13] Ibid, 141.

[14] Tavris, C. (1990). Contentment is hard work. New York Times. New York, New York Times Book Review.

[15] Mirvis, P. (1990). “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.” Academy of Management Review.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I saw a lot of website but I think this one has got something special in it. “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.” by Willem de Kooning.

  2. Very interesting details you have noted, appreciate it for posting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s