By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl
Why is it that some people enjoy a happy, creative life while others get stuck in a frustrating rut? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl believes the answer lies in today’s increasingly distracted and anxiety-filled lifestyles that lead to becoming overly focused on external opinions and rewards. A good example of this is constantly comparing ourselves to others, and the author offers techniques that can lead to focusing on inner interests and rewards instead, entering a state he calls pure flow. In this state, external rewards such as wealth or power no longer matter, and the opinions of others go unnoticed.
Years of research have gone into the understanding of flow, and the techniques presented in this book combine ancient wisdom with modern psychology. Getting into a flow state – also described as getting “into the zone” – can bring many benefits, and those who experience it not only do their best work, they also lead contented lives. This is highlighted by realising that a multi-millionaire or a high-flying business executive might still be bored, yet a manual labourer on minimum wage might find infinite pleasure in everything they do.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
There’s no strong correlation between wealth and satisfaction with life.
Instant gratification is compensation for the daily grind of life, and we tend to choose it over more rewarding forms of enjoyment that take longer to attain.
In seeking flow, or being in the zone, we become so totally immersed in the task at hand that we’re released from all self-consciousness.
The Psychology of Optimal Experience
The content presented by the author is designed to give the reader an opportunity to consider the level of satisfaction and happiness they’re experiencing in life and to take steps to bring more meaning into all they do. He makes the point that we’re living in luxurious times, commenting that our ancestors could never have imagined the conveniences we take for granted in modern life, but despite having more money, more things, and often more free time, we don’t seem to be any happier.
Satisfaction with life doesn’t correlate strongly with being wealthy. We might chase powerful positions or display our wealth in ways designed to impress others, but these things don’t bring lasting satisfaction or happiness. Getting more out of life means finding greater meaning.
Pleasures Versus Enjoyment
The author believes that we seek instant gratification or simple pleasures to compensate for the drudgery of daily life. These pleasures are easy to attain and could be as simple as tucking into a ready snack in front of the TV after work. Enjoyment is something that’s harder to attain, and it involves using skills, concentration, and stretching ourselves. An example given is to imagine preparing a meal you’ve never made before. The willingness to experiment and the patience to stick with the task add to the satisfaction and enjoyment experienced in the learning process, and you are then rewarded for your efforts as you savour every bite. Despite this, we seem to prefer simple pleasures to enjoyment, and because of this, we miss the opportunity to grow – in this case, grabbing a ready-made snack instead of developing our culinary skills and tastes.
It's the enjoyment that helps us to accomplish ambitious goals, and the feeling of being “in the zone” is described using the same terms across different languages and cultures. It’s a feeling of enjoyment rather than pleasure, and it’s experienced when you’re engaged in a task that has clear goals, balances skills and challenges, and provides immediate feedback. When you’re in the zone, you’re totally immersed in what you’re doing, so you’re combining action with awareness, and this creates a feeling of control.
The sport of rock climbing provides a good example: to achieve their goals, climbers face extreme danger, but there’s enjoyment in using their skills and expertise to accurately estimate the difficulty of each climb and thereby push through fears. A rock climber needs to devote their full attention to the task, and this full immersion has the power to free them from all self-consciousness, anxieties, or worries, allowing them to lose all track of time. In a flow state, a climber is so deeply focused on the task at hand that they forget about everything else – a feeling they might describe as being “at one with the mountain.”
With this understanding, it becomes clear that it’s enjoyment rather than the pleasure that helps us to gain control over our attention. Engaging in something that’s neither too easy nor too difficult gives us the opportunity to expand our limits and achieve more. The author uses the story of a tourist shopping in Naples to illustrate this point. The tourist wanted to buy a sculpture in an antique shop and asked the owner for a price. The owner quoted a hefty price, but when he saw the tourist was willing to pay it without question, he then said the sculpture wasn’t for sale. This wasn’t because the shop owner wanted to exploit the tourist, it was because he enjoyed the bargaining process. Bargaining provided a battle of wits that helped to sharpen his mental dexterity and his selling skills.
Another example is to imagine yourself as a beginner at tennis. Being able to hit the ball back and forth over the net provides enjoyment at this stage, but as your skills improve, the simplicity of it will begin to bore you and you’ll look for new ways to challenge yourself. If you then choose to play against an opponent with far greater skills, you may find yourself feeling out of your depth, and if the level of difficulty is too great, it can lead to giving up and missing out on the chance to develop and grow. However, if you were to choose an opponent with skills just a notch above your own, you’re much more likely to enjoy the challenge and you’re in a much better position to improve your own skills.
It’s important to note that to make improvements, the skills you’re acquiring need to be aligned with personal goals and passions, not influenced by external circumstances such as promises of a reward if you do well, or the threat of punishment if you don’t. The author believes that many people are dissatisfied with their daily lives because they lack a sense of challenge in their jobs, leading them to opt for easy to attain instant pleasures when they get home from work. To change this, he suggests that treating work like a game with intrinsic rewards – therefore not extrinsic rewards such as extra cash or power – can not only increase satisfaction but also lead to improved performance.
If work can be developed into an activity that provides a challenge, focuses your attention, and reduces anxieties, it can be a task that encourages a flow state. Achieving this level of challenge might be trying to learn as much as possible in your role or trying to surpass your typical level of performance in some other way – anything that takes you beyond merely clocking in and clocking out.
Away from work, developing interpersonal and communication skills helps to build good friendships and strengthen expressiveness. The author points out that the skills we have are either instrumental, such as survival and professional skills, or expressive, such as communicating who we are through our personalities. Spending time with friends nurtures our expressive sides, and this is known to produce much higher levels of happiness, boost self-esteem, and increase motivation. Focused attention on enjoyable activities helps us to gain perspective, and this not only helps us to distance ourselves from anxieties, it also helps us to find new ways to grow.
A key message conveyed in the book is that we are all at some time or other going to be faced with misfortunes in life, but rather than simply giving up because the situation feels too difficult to handle, there are three strategies we can employ:
Letting go of our egos and trusting in our ability to handle situations as they arise.
Practising being mindful of our environment.
Using difficult situations to discover creative solutions, rather than giving up.
When it feels like your life lacks meaning, it’s up to you to create meaning. The beauty of this is that each one of us can choose that meaning, and we do this by creating an ultimate goal to focus on. Your end goal can be anything, all that matters is that you become fully immersed in it and the increasingly complex challenges it provides. In so doing, you’re able to completely disregard the opinions of others – you have discovered purpose in your life. Of course, having established a goal, you then need the strength of resolve and intent to act on it if you’re going to realise it. It’s all too easy to procrastinate by organising endless to-do lists, but to achieve a goal, you need to do the things on the list.
Doing is always going to be easier when your goals and resolutions are harmonious and express a life theme. The author uses Malcolm X as an example: he grew up in poverty, dealt drugs, and went to jail. It’s fair to say that this was a life anyone would be dissatisfied with, but he found the resolve to turn things around. In jail, he discovered reading and reflection, and the self-knowledge he gained drove him to improve himself and improve the lives of others by becoming a civil rights activist. Readers are then asked to imagine where we’d be without such clear goals and strong resolve: would we be capable of fighting deadly diseases, crafting masterpieces, or walking on the moon?
Most of us will experience times of being so absorbed in what we’re doing that everything else gets forgotten – even eating, drinking, and sleeping- and time seems to fly by unnoticed. It’s in this flow state that we’re most likely to experience deep enjoyment and be at our most creative. Through his research, the author believes that this positive state is something we can control, rather than something we leave to chance, and by learning to order the information that enters our consciousness, we can unlock our true potential and discover true happiness.
The author presents a clear case for seeking enjoyment over simple pleasures to live a happier and more creative life. Enjoyment is found in focusing your attention on every moment, being mindful of your surroundings, and immersing yourself in your interests. In other words, losing yourself in what you’re doing and experiencing a flow state. Flow, or being in the zone, allows you to focus on intrinsic rewards rather than being distracted by external influences or the opinions of other people, and it’s a state that leads to doing your best work and, most importantly, living a contented life.
The use of research and examples across all aspects of life helps to clearly illustrate the author’s points and cement the readers’ understanding of pure flow. The techniques provided are simple to apply and incorporate into daily routines, making the potential to experience flow available to anyone interested in ditching distractions and finding greater meaning and purpose in life.
Bio of the Author
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was a Hungarian-American psychologist most known for his work on the psychological concept he named “flow.” He was the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, and also the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. Mihaly died in 2021 at the age of 87.