Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The first time I (tried) to read it, I was instantly put off. The second time, I couldn't put it down. Perhaps I wasn't in the right mindset the first time around. But this book is very interesting. Highly recommended.

18 min read

Happiness Revisited

Aristotle: More than anything else, men and women seek happiness.

Premise of the book: When do people feel most happy?

Happiness is not something that just happens. It is not the result of luck or chance. It is not something money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, how we interpret them.

We cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so" — J. S. Mill.

"Don't aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue ... as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself" — Viktor Frankl.

The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

Flow: 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.

Everything we experience - joy or pain, interest or boredom - is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like. (chapter 2)

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy - or attention - is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. (chapter 3)

Quality of life cannot be improved by making wealth, power, or sex your primary goal. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.

The roots of the discontent are internal, and each person must untangle them personally, with his or her own power.

The only authority many people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy (attention).

One must particularly achieve control over instinctual drives to achieve a healthy independence of society, for as long as we respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own ends.

There is not question that to survive, and especially to survive in a complex society, it is necessary to work for external goals and to postpone immediate gratifications. (...) The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one's own powers. This is not to say that we should abandon every goal endorsed by society; rather, it means that, in addition to or instead of the goals others use to bribe us with, we develop a set of our own.

"Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them" — Epictetus

"If you are painted by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now." — Marcus Aurelius

Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory.

The Anatomy of Consciousness

This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.

Framework: "a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory."

What does it mean to be conscious?

Certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course. We can think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information.

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered.

An individual can only experience so much. Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extreme important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of life.

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.

The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. We create ourselves by how we invest our attention.

Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it.

Every piece of information we process gets evaluated for its bearing on the self. Does it threaten our goals, does it support them, or is it neutral? A new piece of information will either create disorder in consciousness, by getting us all worked up to face the threat (psychic entropy), or it will reinforce our goals, thereby freeing up psychic energy (attention).

Flow is the opposite of psychic entropy. And those who attain it develop a stronger, more confident self, because more of their psychic energy (attention) has been invested successfully in their goals they themselves had chosen to pursue.

Flow is order in consciousness, and psychic entropy is disorder in consciousness.

When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve - because even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable.

Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow.

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 the 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.

The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled.

Flow helps integrate the self because in the state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal.

The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.

Enjoyment and the Quality of Life

Two strategies to improve the quality of life.

Make external conditions match our goals.

Change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.

Neither are effective used alone.

To improve life one must improve the quality of experience

Instead of worrying about how to make a million dollars or how to win friends and influence people, it seems more beneficial to find out how everyday life can be made more harmonious and more satisfying, and thus achieve by a direct route what cannot be reached through the pursuit of symbolic goals.

To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.

The phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components.

First: The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.

Second: We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.

Third and Fourth: The concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.

Fifth: One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.

Sixth: Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.

Seventh: Concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.

Eighth: The sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

First: A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills

By far the overwhelming proportion of optimal experiences are reported to occur within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules — activities that require the investment of psychic energy (attention), and that could nont be done without the appropriate skills.

A great way to find a challenging activity is competition. But only when competition is a means to perfect one's skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.

In all the activities people in our study reported engaging in, enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities.

Second: The Merging of Action and Awareness

When all a person's relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person's attention is completely absorbed by the activity.

As a result, people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing. This is actually why they called optimal experience 'Flow'.

Clear Goals and Feedback

The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that the goals are usually clear, and feedback immediate.

It would seem that it isn't possible to enter flow when the activity is creative or open-ended (composing music, painting, etc) - but these are all exceptions that prove the rule: unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.

In some creative activities, where goals are not clearly set in advance, a person must develop a strong personal sense of what she intends to do. Without it, it is impossible to achieve flow.

The kind of feedback we work toward is in and of itself often unimportant. What makes the information valuable is the symbolic message it contains: that I have succeeded in my goal. Such knowledge creates order in consciousness, and strengthens the structure of the self.

Concentration on the Task at Hand

One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life. This feature of flow is an important by-product of the fact that enjoyable activities require a complete focusing of attention on the task at hand — thus leaving no room in the mind for irrelevant information.

The ordinary state of mind involves unexpected and frequent episodes of entropy interfering with the smooth run of psychic energy. This is one reason why flow improves the quality of experience: he clearly structured demands of the activity impose order, and excludes the interference of disorder in consciousness.

The concentration of the flow experience — together with clear goals and immediate feedback — provides order to consciousness, inducing the enjoyable condition of psychic negentropy (opposite of psychic entropy).

The Paradox of Control

Enjoyment often occurs in games, sports, and other leisure activities that are distinct from ordinary life, where any number of bad things can happen. As in, there are no "consequences" to your failures. You don't worry about it.

Thus the flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control - or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.

The Loss of Self-Consciousness

Loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self.

Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.

The Transformation of Time

Hours seem to pass by in minutes.

But it can also go 'slower'.

And now back to the actual chapter 'Enjoyment and the Quality of Life'.

Being in flow is an autotelic experience (auto = self, telic = goal. self-containing activity). The activity is its own reward.

You can do something for different reasons. When the experience is autotelic, then you are paying attention to the activity for its own sake. And when it is not autotelic, you are focusing your attention on the consequences of the activity (trying to make money from playing the stock market, rather than proving your ability, for example).

But often, things aren't purely one or the other, but are a combination of the two.

The Conditions of Flow

Flow can happen by chance, but it is much more likely that flow will result either from a structured activity, or from an individual's ability to make flow occur, or both.

Some of the activities in the book (chess, rock-climbing, dancing etc) are very conductive to flow because they were designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, and they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from the so-called "paramount reality" of everyday existence.

Competition can also improve experience, but only as long as attention is focused primarily on the activity itself. If extrinsic goals — such as beating the opponent, wanting to impress an audience, or obtaining a big professional contract — are what one is concerned about, then competition is likely to become a distraction, rather than an incentive to focus consciousness on what is happening.

Every flow activity has this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness.

Great figure that explains the longer-term progression of skill compared to the challenge in terms of flow. Page 74.

One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Some individuals might be constitutionally incapable of experiencing flow. When a person cannot control psychic energy, neither learning for true enjoyment is possible (ie. having an attention disorder).

Also excessively self-conscious people will have a hard time experiencing flow, but not impossible. Same goes for self-centered people.

There are also environmental and social obstacles to enjoyment.

Slavery, oppression, exploitation, destruction of cultural values = elimination of enjoyment.

Also obstacles to flow: anomie and alienation (p. 86).

Some people are genetically endowed to achieve flow easier than others.

Your relationship to your parents / family can effect how easily you enter flow. Not going to explain this deeply as that's not something one can do anything about later in life.

The traits that mark an autotelic personality are most clearly revealed by people who seem to enjoy situations that ordinary persons would find unbearable.

The skill of achieving flow can be cultivated through training and discipline.

The Body in Flow

Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are:

(a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible

(b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen

(c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity

(d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available

(e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Music, which is organized auditory information, helps organize the mind that attends to it, and therefore reduces psychic entropy, or the disorder we experience when random information interferes with goals. Listening to music wards off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences.

The Flow of Thought

To enjoy a mental activity, one must meet the same conditions that make physical activities enjoyable. There must be skill in a symbolic domain; there have to be rules, a goal, and a way of obtaining feedback. One must be able to concentrate and interact with the opportunities at a level commensurate with one's skills.

This is not easy, however. The normal state of the mind is chaos. So without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people can't focus for more than a few minutes at a time. We usually have to force our attention back to the activity - if we wish to keep going.

Daydreaming can actually help avoid chaos in our consciousness. In general, a better route for avoiding chaos in consciousness is through habits that give control over mental processes to the individual, rather than some external source of stimulation, such as the programs of network TV. But to acquire such a habit requires practice, and the kind of goals and rules that are inherent in flow activities.

The building blocks of most symbol systems, words make abstract thinking possible and increase the mind's capacity to store the stimuli it has attende to. Without systems for ordering information, even the clearest memory will find consciousness in a state of chaos.

Great thinkers have always been motivated by the enjoyment of thinking rather than by the material rewards that could be gained by it.

Talking well enriches every interaction, and it is a skill that can be learned by everyone. It is not for utilitarian reasons alone that breadth of vocabulary and verbal fluency are among the most important qualifications for success as a business executive.

The importance of personally taking control of the direction of learning from the very first steps cannot be stressed enough. If a person feels coerced to read a certain book, to follow a given course because that is supposed to be the way to do it, learning will go against the grain. But if the decision is to take that same route because of an inner feeling of rightness, the learning will be relatively effortless and enjoyable.

While specialization is necessary to develop the complexity of any pattern of thought, the goals-ends relationship must always be kept clear: specialization is for the sake of thinking better, and not an end in itself. Unfortunately many serious thinkers devote all their mental effort to becoming well-known scholars, but in the meantime they forget their initial purpose in scholarship.

Work as Flow

At the same time, it would be erroneous to expect that if all jobs were constructed like games, everyone would enjoy them. Even the most favorable external conditions do not guarantee that a person will be in flow. Because optimal experience depends on a subjective evaluation of what the possibilities for action are, and of one's own capacities, it happens quite often than an individual will be discontented even with a potentially great job.

Good chapter, but not many things to take note of.

Basically, we spend our leisure-time poorly; we are unhappy in our leisure-time but happy at work. Yet we 'hate' work because of our perception of it, as if it were something forced upon one. So we better start using our free time in flow-activities to optimize not only our own happiness, but also our complexity so that we can become better humans. The last part of the chapter is great: 'The Waste of Free Time'.

Enjoying Solitude and Other People

Quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.

Unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration.

Page 172 is insanely good.

Good chapter, but not many things to take note of.

Those who try to make life better for everyone without having learned to control their own lives first usually end up making things worse all around.

Creating Chaos

Become good at growing from adversity.

Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal. There are three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance - your destiny is in your own hands. Unselfconscious = you are not focusing on dominating your environment, rather you are focusing on finding a way to live within it harmoniously. This aligns very much with focusing on the aspects that you can control; not what you cannot control.
  2. Focusing attention on the world - Pay attention to the world around you. Don't become blind to anything but your own goals and purposes — you may even miss something crucial that would help you achieve them. New possibilities can emerge, which might suggest new responses, and one is less likely to be entirely cut off from the stream of life.
  3. The discovery of new solutions - Almost every situation we encounter in life presents possibilities for growth. But these transformations require that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities.

The autotelic self is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self. The term literally means "a self that has self-contained goals", and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self.

The autotelic self transforms potentially entropic experiences into flow. Therefore the rules for developing such a self are simple, and they derive directly from the flow model:

  1. Setting goals - To be able to experience flow, one must have clear goals to strive for. Selecting a goal is related to the recognition of challenges — challenges and goals imply each other. Say you want to become a surgeon. In that case, there are challenges; skills that you must learn, in order to become one. And the same goes in reverse. Maybe you are great at money management, economics, and the likes, so you choose to become a financial advisor because you see yourself as someone who has the right qualifications. To actually develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one's actions - to monitor the feedback. You set the goal, so you take ownership for accomplishing it - or changing it, if it no makes sense to have it for you.
  2. Becoming immersed in the activity - After choosing a system of action, a person with an autotelic personality grows deeply involved with whatever he is doing. Many people stagnate because they don't trust their own potential. They choose the safety of trivial goals, and arrest the growth of complexity at the lowest level available. To achieve involvement with an action system, one must find a relatively close mesh between the demands of the environment and one's capacity to act.
  3. Paying attention to what is happening - Concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention. Athletes know that in a race even a momentary lapse can spell complete defeat. Looking at the world from the little window that one's self affords is always limited. Even the most highly respected physicist, artist, or politician become a hollow bore and ceases to enjoy life if all he can interest himself in is his limited role in the universe.
  4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience - The outcome of having an autotelic self - of learning to set goals, to be sensitive to feedback, to know how to concentrate and get involved, is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty. To achieve control of the mind requires determination and discipline. Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life. A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defense against chaos. You must develop skills that stretch capacities, that makes you become more than what you already are.

The Making of Meaning

Having achieved flow in one activity does not necessarily guarantee that it will be carried over to the rest of life.

If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together — and each activity will "make sense" in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one's entire life.

It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying.

From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is — provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime's worth of psychic energy.

As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person's life.

People who find their lives meaningful usually have a goal that is challenging enough to take up all their energies, a goal that can give significance to their lives. We may refer to this process as achieving purpose.

The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.

It is not enough to find a purpose that unifies one's goals; one must also carry through and meet its challenges. The purpose must result in strivings; intent has to be translated into action. We may call this resolution in the pursuit of one's goals.

What counts is not so much whether a person actually achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether effort has been expended to reach the goal, instead of being diffused or wasted. Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it.

Goals justify the effort they demand at the outset, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal. (p. 224)

Detached reflection upon experience, a realistic weighing of options and their consequences, have long been held to be the best approach to a good life. (are your actions in alignment with your long-term goals?)

Self knowledge is incredibly important. "Know thyself".

Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions: Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future? Is the price that I — and others — will have to pay worth it? Will I be able to live with myself if I accomplish it?

If goals are well chosen, and if we have the courage to abide by them despite opposition, we shall be so focused on the actions and events around us that we won't have the time to be unhappy. And then we shall directly feel a sense of order in the warp and the woof of life that fits every thought and emotion into a harmonious whole.

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