Book Review – Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


I have probably consumed over 200 business books over the last 10 years and the work that is referenced the most by a long way is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I finally got around to reading it, and now I can see why it is such an important work when it comes to both performance psychology, and general well-being. It is a work of psychological importance in academic circles as well as the wider world, however, it is extremely easy and enjoyable to read. It presents a very clear thesis of flow, builds upon it with the distinction between enjoyment and pleasure, then delivers examples of how flow can be achieved that offer tools for the reader.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi survived World War II, having been a prisoner of war and witness to much death and tragedy personally. After the war, he became curious about the nature of happiness and contentment. He observed in the ashes of the war many people were unable to find contentment given all they had lost during the war and became interested in what contributed to a life worth living.

He was inspired to study psychology after stumbling on to a lecture from Carl Jung that addressed his own subjects and compelled him to migrate to the US to study psychology. He worked menial jobs in order to fund his attendance at the University of Chicago, he attained his degree and became a professor and head of the department, as well as a distinguished author of many books investigating flow and happiness. I mention this biographical information as it demonstrates that he himself embodies the experience of a focus of purpose, overcoming challenges, to achieve goals.

The foundation of the book is an offer to counter the prevailing state of being, where although we are more wealthy and live longer with more resources on hand, we are still increasingly anxious and distracted rather than happy and content. His offer is to demonstrate how we can find happiness and contentment in purposeful activity that includes periods of optimal experiences which he terms flow. Have you ever been in a state where you got lost in your activity and it seemed that time flew or stood still, and you didn’t notice your surroundings, where you were not distracted and achieved an aim? Did you describe this as being in the zone, or going with the flow? This is the kind of experience he writes about.

A flow state is achieved when you are engaged in a task that presents a challenge that is achievable by your skill level but is a stretch, has clear goals, and provides immediate feedback on your progress towards it. When we become engaged in the task to a flow level we are immersed and feel in total control.

The book expands on how the above is developed and proceeds to look at examples of it in the areas of the body (physical performance in sex, movement, the senses), of thought (mental challenges and wisdom), in work, and in social environments (alienation and community). It then concludes by looking at how cultivating flow experiences can help make order out of chaos in our lives, cope with tragedy and stress, and discover meaning and purpose in our lives.

Throughout, the author gives us inspiration in how we can pursue flow experiences in these core aspects of our lives and an understanding of what that means in terms of our happiness, pleasure, and contentment.

Flow is a classic in fields of psychological study, and therefore appeals to anyone interested in psychology and beyond, and anyone interested in positive psychology that fuels performance, such as coaches, athletes, business owners and managers. It is also useful for anyone who feels dissatisfied with their current life, who lack purpose and meaning.

His name stands out in any book in which it appears, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: me-high, chicks-sent-me-high), it fails to go unnoticed, and it is mentioned in many many books in the area of business, self-help, and performance psychology. I was very keen to read Flow but was concerned about the academic nature of the work. I need not have been concerned as the book is very accessible, enjoyable, structured very clearly, and often inspires immediate action. Reading it was a flow experience in itself.

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