Finding Flow

The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life

by Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly

Read:  2017-05-16, Rating:  9/10.

Three Sentences from Finding Flow

It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. The happiness that follows flow is our own making and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness. The first step in improving the quality of life, consists of engineering daily activities so that one gets the most rewarding experiences from them. (This sounds simple but…)

My Notes

What makes a life serene, useful and worth living?

The only path to finding out what life is about is a patient, slow attempt, to make sense of the reality of the past and the possibilities of the future, as they can be understood in the present.

To turn Pascal’s Wager on it’s head, it seems that when in doubt, the best strategy is to assume that these 70 or so years are our only chance to experience the cosmos and we should make the fullest use of them. For if we don’t, we may lose everything, where as if we are wrong, and there is life beyond the grave, we lose nothing.

What is life like?

How can each person create an excellent life?

The cycles of rest, production, consumption and interaction are as much a part of how we experience life as our senses, vision, hearing and so forth, are.

Unfortunately there is no justice, nor any rhyme or reason in one person born into a starving community perhaps even with a congenital genital defect, while the other starts life with good looks good health and a large bank account.

If everything was determined by the common human condition, but social and cultural categories and by chance, it would be useless to reflect on ways to make one’s life excellent. Fortunately, there is enough room for personal initiative and choice to make a real difference. And those who believe this are the ones with the best chance to break free from the grip of fate.

To live means to experience. Through doing, feeling, thinking. Experience takes place in time, so time is the ultimate scarce resource we have. Over the years the content of experience will determine the quality of life. Therefore one of the most essential decisions any of us can make is about how ones time is allocated or invested.

It could be argued that it is money that gets its value from time

It’s during leisure, according to the Greek philosophers, that we become more truly human by devoting time to self development, through learning, through the arts, through political activity.

We have seen that work, maintenance, and leisure, take up most of our psychic energy.

While what we do day in and day out has a lot to do with what type of life we have, how we experience what we do is even more important.

We often find ourselves in the paradoxical position, of being like behavioral psychologists when we look at other people, discounting what they say and trusting only what they do. Whereas when we look at ourselves we are like phenomenologists taking our inner feelings more seriously that outside events or overt actions.

Happiness is not the only emotion worth considering.


Negative emotions like sadness, fear anxiety or boredom produce psychic entropy in the mind – a state in which we cannot use attention effectively to deal with external tasks because we need it to restore an inner subjective order

Positive emotions like happiness, strength or alertness are states of psychic negentropy because we don’t need attention to ruminate or feel sorry for ourselves and psychic energy can flow freely to whatever thought or task we choose to invest it in.

Intentions focus psychic energy in the short run, whereas goals tend to be more long term and eventually it is the goals that we pursue that will shape and will determine the kind of self that we are to become.

There are other misconceptions concerning intentions and goals. Some point out that eastern religions, such as the various forms of hinduism and buddhism, prescribe the abolition of intentionality as a prerequisite of happiness. They claim that only by relinquishing every desire, but achieving a goalless existence can we hope to avoid unhappiness.

This reading of the eastern message is rather superficial. After all, the try of abolishing desire is itself a tremendous and ambitious goal.

The true message of the eastern religions is not the abolition of all goals, what they tell us, is that most intentions we form spontaneously is to be mistrusted. To make sure we survive in a dangerous world, dominated by scarcity, our genes have programed us to be greedy, to want power, to dominate over others.

It is these goals the buddhists tell us, that we must learn to curb.

By learning to concentrate, a person acquires control over psychic energy, the basic fuel upon which all thinking depends.


  • Moments such as there, what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony
  • Sense of effortless action in moments that stand out as the best in their lives
  • Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone”
  • Religious mystics as “in ecstasy”
  • Artists and musicians as “musical raptures”

Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.

It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. When are are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness you must focus on our inner states and that would take away attention from the tasks at hand.

The happiness that follows flow is our own making and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.

Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.

The first step in improving the quality of life, consists of engineering daily activities so that one gets the most rewarding experiences from them. This sounds simple but the inertia of habit and social pressure are so strong that many people have no idea which components of their lives they actually enjoy and which contribute to stress and depression.

In the long run more useful skill to acquire is the ability to tolerate solitude and to even enjoy it.

Work has severe drawbacks, but it’s lack, is worse.

Without the goal and challenges usually provided by a job, only a rare self discipline, can keep the mind focused intensely enough to ensure meaningful life.

What often passes unnoticed is that work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day. It usually has clear goals and rules of performance.

So it’s no wonder that the quality of experience at work is most positive that one might expect.

Management is all too often disinterest in how employees experience work. Therefore iit’s not surprising that many workers assume that they cannot count on work to provide the intrinsic rewards in their lives and that they have to wait until they are out of the factory or office before they can begin to have a good time, even though this turns out not to be true.

The objective work environments and the subjective attitudes we learn towards them conspire to make it difficult for many persons to admit, even to themselves, that work can be enjoyable.

It sounds somewhat ridiculous to say that one of the problems we face at this point in history, is that we haven’t learned how to spend free time in a sensible way.

The average person is ill equipped to be idle. Without goals and without others to interact with, most people begin to lose motivation and concentration. The mind begins to wander and, more often than not, it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety.

Each of the flow producing activities requires an initial investment of attention, before it begins to be enjoyable.

People who view television more often than the average, tend to have worse jobs and worse relationships.

The record seems to suggest that a society begins to depend heavily on leisure, and on especially passive leisure, only when it has become incapable of offering meaningful productive occupation to it’s members. Thus, bread and circuses is a ploy of last resort, that postpones the dissolution of society, only temporarily.

When productive activities become too routine, and meaningless, leisure will pick up the slack. It will take up progressively more time and increasingly elaborate artificial stimulation.

Active leisure that helps a person grow, does not come easy.

The world is absolutely full of interesting things to do, only lack of imagination or lack of energy stand in the way. Otherwise, each of us could be a poet or musician, an inventor or explorer, an amateur scholar, scientist, artist, or collector.

It’s difficult to learn math or practise piano or program a computer or figure out the purpose of one’s life when other people are around.

Because for most of us a job is a central part of life, it is essential that this activity be as enjoyable and rewarding as possible.

Three main reasons that jobs are resented:

  1. Pointless (eg. some government employees, high pressure salesmen, and even scientists)
  2. Boring and Routine, provides no variety of challenge
  3. Stressful, especially when one can’t get along with one’s supervisor or colleges who expect too much or don’t recognize one’s contributions

When parents come home exhausted from their jobs, they hope that being with the family will be an effortless, relaxing, invigorating experience. But to find flow in family relaxations requires as much skill as in any other complex activity.

The Autotelic Personality

If there is one quality that distinguishes autotelic individuals, it’s that their psychic energy seems inexhaustible.

“I don’t care what kind of problem it is. If I can solve it, it is fun. It really is a lot of fun to solve problems, isn’t it? Isn’t that what’s interesting in life?”

“When I was five, you know, like, where you just open your eyes and look around and say wow what an incredible trip this is, what the hell is going on, what am i supposed to be doing here. I’ve had that question in me my whole life, and i love it. It makes every day very fresh. And every morning you wake up and it’s like the dawn of creation.”

Develop Curiosity:

  1. Develop the habit of whatever need to be done, with concentrated attention, with skill instead of inertia… with the care it would take to make a work of art.
  2. Transfer some psychic energy every day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems like too much trouble.

Time is what one must find in order to develop interest and curiosity to enjoy life for it’s own sake. The other equally important resource is the ability to control psychic energy.

There is never a good excuse for being bored. To control attention means to control experience and, therefore, the quality of life.

Enjoy the activity for it’s own sake and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s own attention.

Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.

One must first come to know and then master the ego before embarking on a good life.

In order to experience flow, it helps to have clear goals. Not because it is achieving the goals that is necessarily important, but because without a goal, it is hard to concentrate and avoid distractions.

The goal makes the experience of climbing possible. If it were not for the summit, the climb would become pointless ambling that leaves one restless and apathetic.

The very act of setting the goal will take much of the sting out of the chore.

Armored Fate

The love of fate corresponds to a willingness to accept ownership of one’s actions, whether these are spontaneous or imposed from the outside.

Flow is a source of psychic energy, in that it focuses attention and motivates action.

One of the main challenges of our time is to discover new basis for transcendent goals that fit with whatever else we know about the world. A new myth to give meaning to life, but one what will serve us for the present and the near future.