I recently read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's seminal work Flow. It's been on my list of books to read since I heard about it last summer, since I've heard for ages that the state of flow is the state in which we are most productive. And besides that benefit, it feels great to lose yourself in your work. So, the idea of finding out what we know about the conditions that produce flow is very appealing to me, and probably is to others as well.

Flow book cover

I found that my own distinction of flow as being a state that one achieves only when doing knowledge-type work to be far too narrow. I associated the word "flow" with writing a paper and having the words just roll off the keyboard almost effortlessly, with losing myself in writing some code, with designing and problem-solving. Post reading the book, I see that flow can be achieved in many other contexts, such as in conversation with friends, when playing a sport or a game, or reading a book. In many cases, flow may be easier to achieve in conditions other than work.

Csikszentmihalyi's basic premise is that we are most happy when we are in flow, and that flow is produced when a person is engaged in a goal-directed, rule-bound activity that has ready feedback on how he is doing, and is faced with challenges that are suited to his ability level. Flow can occur spontaneously, but it is more likely that it is the result of a structured activity such as a game or work or of a person's ability to make flow occur. For example, surgeons often report that their work is a source of great happiness and optimal experience for them, and that they wouldn't give up being surgeons even if they weren't well-payed for it. A surgeon's job is practically designed to produce flow experiences. The surgeon has a very specific goal--to perform a certain operation, and has instant feedback as to how well he is doing. He has certain procedures that provide a ritualistic way for him to get in the mindset of concentration and allow him to forget external worries for the duration of the surgery. Flow activities "transform the self" by "making it more complex"—flow activities push us to higher limits and allow us to experience states of consciousness that we have never before experienced. In this way, they are more satisfying than diversions such as watching television, which capture the mind's attention and alleviate boredom but provide no challenge to the self.

While the structure of certain activities makes it more likely for flow to occur for those engaged in them, there are some sorts of people who are able to produce flow experiences despite their surroundings being ill-suited. Csikszentmihalyi says that these people have an "autotelic personality". These people are able to alter their own consciousness to produce flow, regardless of external factors. He gives examples of Nazi prisoners held in solitary confinement who were able to find growth and sanity by inward thought despite horrendous external conditions, and a blue-collar factory worker who was able to turn his assembly line position into a challenge where he was always trying to beat his previous speed records. While some people seem inherently better at being happy and finding flow in inideal situations, we can all improve our ability to control our consciousness and find flow.

One point that I found striking in the book was that, despite people generally feeling that when they are at work they would prefer to be home, people report more optimal experiences at work than they do at home. Sunday morning is the time that people are most likely to feel depressed. I can identify with this premise from experience--when I feel down it's most likely to be a Saturday or Sunday, or another day where I am excused from my normal daily routine and am less likely to leave the house or make the decision to commit myself to an activity. In our culture it is popular to view work as manacles on our freedom of choice, when in reality it provides structure and goals for us. While we can in fact provide this structure for ourselves, and thus have more control over what we are doing and who we are helping achieve their greater goals, work often does provide an easier way to achieve flow without having to realize ourselves how to create it.

Despite being as old as I am (it was written in 1988), I found Flow to be thoroughly informative and enjoyable. Its lessons are clearly still applicable, and not as widely known as they deserve to be.