Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an exploration of the state of flow, which occurs when you are challenged by an activity but feel skilled enough to negotiate the tasks involved without arousing anxiety. Flow is most easily recognised by its characteristic effect: a feeling of timelessness. It’s difficult to describe, but everybody has experienced flow. Think about all the times you have been lost in an activity, unaware of anything else around you except what the activity requires.
A flow state can be achieved while performing a wide variety of activities. Reading and writing are common flow activities for me, but I can also achieve the state while running, doing Sudoku puzzles and drawing. Other people have experienced flow through activities such as gardening, horse riding, wood carving, debating, dancing, knitting, cooking, rock climbing… The list is extensive! The main distinction between flow activities and leisure activities which don’t induce a state of flow is that the former involves a high level of engagement, whereas the latter may be a largely passive experience. For example: when you are watching a film which challenges you intellectually so that you are constantly interpreting the images and sound, you may enter a state of flow. In contrast, if you are watching a film which is enjoyable but not stimulating, you may experience pleasure but you won’t experience flow.
Flow explains the intricacies of the flow state, backed up by Csikszentmihalyi’s research, and provides instruction for cultivating flow. People who experience more flow in their lives are happier. In addition to flow being an enjoyable and satisfying state in itself, flow activities tend to result in achievements and improved skills. The activities which are most conducive to flow tend to be personal passions, which help to create meaning in life. By cultivating flow, you will improve multiple aspects of your life.
Part of the beauty of flow is that it’s nothing new and anyone can achieve a flow state, but Csikszentmihalyi’s book acts as a catalyst. It’s useful for people with mental health problems, especially depression, who have lost their sense of purpose and gain less joy from life than they would like. I first read it during a challenging point in my life and I realised that flow could offer a way out; cultivating flow became part of my treatment plan. Flow activities removed me from the misery I was experiencing and helped me, over a long period of time, find meaning in my life.
About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series
This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.
- Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
- Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
- The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
- The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
- Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor