Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
October 10, 2003 1:02 PM   Subscribe

A certain psychologist of Hungarian extraction, Mihaly Csikszentimihaly--sounds like stoned sex-crazed muppet: Me High-ee! Chicks sent me highee!--began by monitoring the activities and emotional states of talented adolescent artists with what became known as experience sampling forms, now available in a new, improved hi tech version. He found people reported the greatest satisfaction when actively involved in a challenging task that stretches abilities, to the extent that time, space, and self-awareness become secondary to the accomplishment of the task. He wrote a book about it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which flew off the shelves in the Self Help sections of bookstores everywhere--even though there were no easy steps nor Idiots Guide To... included beyond an academic enunciation of the parameters involved: the zone of experience in which Flow existed. [More Within]
posted by y2karl (22 comments total)
Idiots Guide or not, this soon became the interest of therapists and social workers everywhere--not to mention jugglers, rock climbers, arthritics, the purveyors of brainiac voodoo and management seminars, schizophrenics, early primitive bloggers, and the designers of websites and online multiple player games. (The last should point out that Flow can be experienced in contexts and pursuits necessarily " good" in any moral sense of self or social improvement.)

Here are three [PDF] good narratives touching on Flow.

And, it's a scientific fact it beats watching TV, by the way.

Csiskszentimihaly, of course, has become a one man industry and authority on Flow, and his pioneering studies have laid the foundation to an area of psychological research known as Happiness Studies.
posted by y2karl at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2003

Sorry, I'm a bit confused--isn't this in line with "scientists determine that fish need water to survive"? Anyone who has ever been absorbed in making something (or even just reading something engaging) knows that this is true... are there people for whom this is an unusual experience? How can that be?

I must be missing something here.
posted by jokeefe at 1:11 PM on October 10, 2003

Great linkage, y2karl. I first heard about [copy&paste] Mihaly Csikszentimihaly [that was easy] on an NPR interview nearly ten years ago. Flow is an excellent book and idea, and after getting the gist of his position [which can be a bit cumbersome], it's easy to begin seeing those" optimal states" in your own life... nifty nifty!
posted by moonbird at 1:17 PM on October 10, 2003

Thanks, karl. Excellent links about something I had never heard of before, but certainly rings true.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:23 PM on October 10, 2003

jokeefe, I've been doing a bit of reading about this. Martin Seligman's books.

Yeah, there really are people who have little or no experience of this feeling. Also, think about times when your life has seemed in a rut, without purpose, dull, whatever - I bet you that in retrospect, those were times when for one reason or another you spent very little time on things that produce flow for you.

If you lead a life full of obligation, or where you don't get a lot of time to reflect, this can happen quite easily.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:27 PM on October 10, 2003

Thanks for the reply, Mr. Spleen. This is a sobering thought. I've been addicted to "flow states" since I was a young 'un, and I've been chasing them for just as long.

A day without flow is like... well, you know.
posted by jokeefe at 1:36 PM on October 10, 2003

That is the one dead on critique I've seen, clavdivs--it's always about paying close attention to something done in the moment, and hence essentially akin to Zen mindfulness..

Management types, of course, love the concept because it's a rationale for workaholic overtime but, really, unless you're a brain surgeon, Linus Torvald or some such, very few jobs have that much flow.
posted by y2karl at 2:03 PM on October 10, 2003

I remember reading the book eleven years ago,
and how cool it felt aiming to achieve states of flow;
but then I got sidetracked when I met Robert, my (still) beau.
y2karl: thanks for bringing it back to mind, bro!

(on preview: For my work I do medical transcription,
so flow fits perfectly within my job description!)
posted by troybob at 2:11 PM on October 10, 2003

Not just Zen. Judaism (or Chasidus, anyway) has its own equivalent in the form of devekut, which is a set of devotional practises designed to inform daily life with consciousness of God ("cleaving to God"). Can't find any good links, unfortunately. Anyway, mindfulness is not unique to Buddhism. I suspect some Jews would be worried about the possible consequences of mindfulness decoupled from God.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:24 PM on October 10, 2003

Great link, but is it really necessary to make fun of the man's name?
posted by spazzm at 2:25 PM on October 10, 2003

What I find most disturbing is that a huge chunk of the money for research into flow experience (both from the psychological and neurochemical approaches) in acaedmia is coming from military sources. Basically, they want something to augment the "go pills" amphetamine effect where subjects lose attention focus after 20 hours or so.
posted by meehawl at 3:02 PM on October 10, 2003

Great link, but is it really necessary to make fun of the man's name?

Actually, I really appreciated the mnemonic pronunciation there. I've always wondered how to say his name. Now, I'll never forget it.
posted by 4easypayments at 3:05 PM on October 10, 2003

meehawl - doesn't Provigil fulfill that?
posted by dragoon at 5:08 PM on October 10, 2003

I get flow when I do painting, and when I'm downhill skiing. Two completely opposite activities from all angles I can think of, yet the same state of mind.

Well, nearly the same state. I have more moments of exhilaration when I'm skiing. :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 5:27 PM on October 10, 2003

Management types, of course, love the concept because it's a rationale for workaholic overtime but, really, unless you're a brain surgeon, Linus Torvald or some such, very few jobs have that much flow.

Well... it may be where you find it, or maybe I'm just good at self-hypnosis or something, but I've become entranced with what I'm doing even when it's just been something as banal as formatting course materials in Word, or doing the dishes (become one with the detergent...) or even a really busy run on the phones at reception. You just--are there. And nowhere else. It carries its own powers of acceleration, concentration, and pleasure. Of course when writing is going well, that's the ultimate, for me, but I can access this state just by going to aerobics class, too, as can pretty much anyone, I would imagine.

On the other hand, maybe it was taking the peyote when I was 19, or something.
posted by jokeefe at 5:33 PM on October 10, 2003

I've never heard of this before, but I've experienced it since I was a kid, and think of it as "that focus thing". But it's not actually focus - almost the opposite, really, it's being so deeply into whatever I'm doing, skating right on the edge of my ability, that it takes over my whole mind. I'm not even thinking about it, I'm just *doing* it, and as soon as I start thinking again the spell breaks and I have to relax myself back into it. Reading this article makes me wonder whether I spend time on the activities I enjoy because I really enjoy them, or simply because they are reliable mechanisms for getting into this mental state.
posted by Mars Saxman at 6:55 PM on October 10, 2003

I think that state is why I do what I do do. Kookoocachoo.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:36 PM on October 10, 2003

Management types, of course, love the concept because it's a rationale for workaholic overtime but, really, unless you're a brain surgeon, Linus Torvald or some such, very few jobs have that much flow.

I have experienced being in the 'flow' in countless different activities. I have felt it while working on the production line, while reading a good novel, while doing programming, while playing basketball, while having sex, while cycling, while walking, while listening to music, etc...

The flow does not seem to depend on any particular type of task but instead depends on the approach to the task.
posted by srboisvert at 7:36 PM on October 10, 2003

In the link I intended to use on Experience Sampling Forms, as it was at least tangentially related to ESFs, the study was of mature age students who chose to return to, or embark on, university studies and who included at least one mathematics subject among their first year load.

Two persons were given as examples: Ann was a full time student who was studying at the university of her first choice. She was married, with three children, and lived in her own home. She had decided against going to university when she left school because she had not decided on a career, wanted a break from formal studies and needed to work to support herself. Nor had her family discouraged her from taking that break. When we interviewed Howard at the beginning of the year he was also a full time student, but not at the university of his first choice. Like Ann, he had attended a coeducational government school in the metropolitan area and was born in Australia. His wish to travel and to have a break from formal study were important reasons for the delay between leaving school and embarking on his current course. Howard was also living with a permanent partner and had one child.

Ann was a mother and worked part-time as a waitress as well as being a returning student. Howard was not engaged in paid work.

Ann, it appears, is being pulled in many directions: home, family responsibilities, the desire to gain some independence through her part time earnings, and to do well in her course. The wish for more personal space and time, and uninterrupted time for study, are themes captured by many of her responses. Howard's concern to spend time with his child, his pleasure when he masters assignments and other hurdles set in the course, and considerable flexibility in organising daily activities are recurring themes in his ESFs.

In general, Howard's responses again reflect a more satisfied and less frustrated student. He apparently found it easier to concentrate, felt better about himself, considered that he was living up to his own expectations as well as those of others, rated his level of success higher than did Ann, and showed a higher level of satisfaction.

Flow seems an easier state to approach for some mature college students than others.
posted by y2karl at 11:18 PM on October 10, 2003

Does napping count as a flow experience?
posted by mecran01 at 9:53 AM on October 11, 2003

Thanks y2karl, some wonderful reading.

Enough stuff there to keep me busy for a little while.
posted by oneiros at 1:49 PM on October 11, 2003

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