Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
reviewed by Edmund Sherman - 1991
This informative book is based on twenty years of research by the author and his colleagues at the University of Chicago in which they used an innovative research technique called Experience Sampling Method. The fruit of this research was the discovery of a phenomenon called flow, which the author describes as the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake (p. 6).
The kinds of activity that can produce flow are extremely varied, including art, sports, games, hobbies, and work. The key word here is activity, for Csikszentmihalyi makes it clear that flow does not come from inertia or passive pursuits. In fact, his research on effects of television leads him to the conclusion that it makes viewers passive and discontented. Contentment is much more apt to come from the flow experience, which is a state of engrossed involvement that lies between boredom and anxiety in which the person is mentally involved in the intrinsic pleasure and challenge of the activity without self-conscious concern about performance. Unfortunately, in many of our everyday activities we find ourselves having to perform in certain ways to achieve standards and goals that are mostly external to us, as in work involving production quotas. The flow experience, on the other hand, is based on autotelic activities, which are activities that provide their own intrinsic rewards through the pleasurable experience of carrying them out, as is the case in games that are challenging. Czikszentmihalyi thinks there is too much emphasis on behavior over subjective states, on the quality of performance over the quality of experience.
Although many jobs are geared toward behaviors and performance in the service of goals extrinsic to the worker, the author suggests that management and workers may be able to change the conditions of the job somewhat to make it move conducive to flow. As he puts it, the more a job inherently resembles a gamewith variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedbackthe more enjoyable it will be regardless of the workers level of development (p. 156). Indeed, the author of Flow has provided valuable consultation to leaders in business and industry to enable them to expand flow opportunities for managers and workers alike.
However, flow does not represent just fun and games, because it involves intense concentration and a complex integration of skills in a given area of thought or activity. The challenge lies in honing and testing the skills through intense concentration and practice, and as these skills are perfected, the pleasure lies in applying them in a totally engrossing process that flows and in which there is no self-consciousness about performance. The intense concentration is necessary because the secret of flow lies in controlling ones consciousness in a focused way. When this occurs, alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals (p. 69).
Although flow is an important new concept, it appears to have been expanded in this book to accommodate too many different experiences. For example, the author tries to equate the concept of flow with the Taoist principle of Yu, according to which the ancient Chinese sages lived lives marked by wisdom and contentment. However, that principle was enacted by the practice of wu-wei, the art of going along with the flow of things in an intelligent way.1 There is far too much self-controlled and intense concentration in the flow experience described by Csikszentmihalyi to be the kind of going along and noncontrolling experience of wu-wei.
There is, in fact, a great deal of emphasis on doing (activity) in contrast to being (more going along) in Csikszentmihalyis conception of flow. This is quite in line with the American obsession with doing, as anthropologists Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck found in their cross-cultural studies.2 Their findings suggest that contentment is more apt to come from a mixture of being and doing, and being in this sense is not the passivity of television viewing but a more contemplative state. However, being and doing are not totally exclusive, and the author of Flow has captured the kind of doing that blends with a very gratifying form of being.
The only other issue this reviewer has with the book is the lack of an index. It was frustrating not to be able to find page listings for specific terms or concepts that would have been useful to check in the course of reading the book. On the other hand, the reading of the narrative section of the book was greatly enhanced by the absence of footnotes and the use of informative endnotes after the body of the text.
The final chapter of the book is particularly strong. It is excellent in spelling out how people manage to combine various forms of flow experience into a meaningful pattern of experience from a life-span perspective. This is especially valuable to those of us in the field of gerontology who are concerned with activities and experience across the life span and the issues raised by retirement in late adulthood. Too often, clinical gerontologists find a form of defense called busyness among many elderly persons, which consists of rather compulsive, driven activities that are used to ward off frustration, boredom, and depression after retirement. Csikszentmihalyis proposal for flow activities that provide their own intrinsic rewards would go far in meeting this problem.
Although this is not a how to book, the author lays out the components and requirements for flow experiences that can readily be converted into workable methods by educators, counselors, and human service practitioners in general. Also, although Flow is not intended to be a self-help book, it is hard to imagine an intelligent and literate reader who cannot personally gain a great deal from reading it.