I usually don’t read books that are so popular that their ideas have become ubiquitous in our culture. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is one of those books — I had come across so many articles and videos rehashing the books’ main ideas, that it didn’t feel necessary to actually read it.
I finally came around to reading the book recently and I really wish that I had found this book earlier in my life.
After graduating from university some 18 months ago, I felt really lost without the external structure of classes and assignments. I didn’t have much experience in structuring my time and goals as an adult, which made life feel really unfulfilling.
The turning point came when I picked up the guitar again. I used to play as a kid, but I never really found it very enjoyable. It hadn’t occurred to me that when external goals (e.g. performances) weren’t involved, getting better at music for its own sake was fun.
I was shocked at how much better I felt when I spent weekends picking up a new song instead of watching Netflix. Practicing guitar was the only leisurely activity that made me feel more energized afterwards. Since then, I’ve experimented with many different activities in search of that feeling, ultimately landing on writing and (most recently) digital art.
Csikszentmihalyi’s book gave me the framework to understand the common thread connecting music, writing, and making art — these are all activities that are known to be deeply fulfilling because they consistently produce flow. To briefly define flow,
Flow is a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. — Wikipedia
Simply put, it’s the feeling of being “in the zone”. Think about the feeling of being immersed in a book, playing a sport, or performing a musical piece.
Activities that are conducive to flow states share a couple of common characteristics:
- need an investment of attention
- need to be just challenging enough
- need clear goals and immediate feedback
- need to be intrinsically rewarding
These elements lead to personal growth, novelty, and accomplishment — culminating in a sense of deep enjoyment that feels really rewarding.
Csikszentmihalyi argues life can be made more enjoyable by recognizing the conditions that are favorable to flow states and working to actively cultivate them.
Importantly, all activities that lead to flow require an unusual investment of attention. When we passively perform our jobs or mindlessly consume entertainment, these activities sap our attention and leave us more exhausted and disheartened than before.
Attention is our most valuable resource and anything worthwhile in life requires an investment of attention.
Making the space to deliberately fill my free time with hobbies that energized me was a long journey, especially with how easy it is to find low-effort forms of entertainment these days (e.g. Netflix, social media). With many flow-conducive activities, you have to reach a certain level of skill before it begins to be rewarding — there’s no shortcut, which is why many people never consistently stick with these habits.
Being able to structure my free time in a way that energizes me dramatically changed the quality of my life. Csikszentmihalyi’s book helped me understand why certain activities feel so rewarding and gave me a framework for cultivating flow.
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