The Flow Experience  

{Csikszentmihalyi, 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.} 

Pleasure and enjoyment 

Pleasure is fleeting; it does not require an investment of psychic energy or attention; one can feel it without effort. Pleasure is an important component of life quality, but it does not bring happiness. Pleasure is a feeling of contentment achieved whenever information in consciousness says that expectations set by biological programs or social conditioning have been met. Drive satisfaction provides restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps maintain order but cannot create a new order in consciousness. 

People keep hoping that changing the external conditions of their lives will provide the solution to discontent. If only they could earn more money, be in better physical shape, or have a more understanding partner, they would have it made. Even though we recognize that material success may not bring happiness, we engage in the endless struggle to reach external goals, expecting that they will improve life.

The reality is that life quality does not depend directly on what others think of us or what we own. Rather, how we feel about ourselves and what happens to us influence our wellbeing; to improve life, one must improve the quality of experience.

Enjoyment is characterized by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. After an enjoyable event, we know we have changed, our self has grown, and we have become more complex. Enjoyment requires attention to be fully concentrated on the activity. In contrast, pleasure is evanescent, and the self does not grow due to pleasurable experiences. Complexity requires investing psychic energy in goals that are new and that are relatively challenging.

Children’s excitement of mastering new things gradually wears out as “learning” becomes an external imposition when schooling starts.

To gain personal control over the quality of experience, one must learn how to build enjoyment into what happens daily. So, what makes the experience enjoyable?

Elements of enjoyment

The phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing; we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing; concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback; one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life; enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions; concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over; finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered, hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. Combining all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding that people expend a great deal of energy to feel it. These are events that help the self grow.

Elements of flow experience, applications, and practices

Clear goal – Challenges match skills – Concentration and focus – Performance feedback – Loss of self-consciousness – Transformation of time

Goals provide purpose, direct psychic energy creating meaning, and help achieve flow. Have an ultimate life goal in mind; strive to achieve flow while accomplishing the goal and its sub-goals; make your life ordered and meaningful, and live up to your potentials.

Challenge yourself; make challenges manageable; if the activity is not challenging enough, set a higher goal; if it is too challenging, break it down into sub-goals or work on mastering the necessary skills. Challenges encountered with interest and skill engage and focus attention and absorb consciousness. Joy, optimal performance, personal growth, and skill development follow. One can attain optimal experience through optimal order. Clearing intention and attention for goal attainment help achieve flow. A void of activity, interest, and purpose makes people unhappy. Psychic entropy, in the form of psychic energy leakage through rage, pain, fear, anxiety, and jealousy, does waste potential and feeds unhappiness.

Flow is linked to goals; the chain of links goes from goals to motivation, strengths use, engagement, mastery, competence, accomplishment, positive emotion, etc.

Get rid of distractions so you can concentrate and focus on the goal; immerse yourself in what you are doing. Trying to be in flow and thinking about flow will hinder flow.

Examine your flow experiences in the different life areas: work, sports, hobbies, relationships, and daily activities. Cultivate more of the experiences already flow producing, or create flow in previously mundane activities by transferring elements from flow experiences.

Use the principles and conditions of flow to move toward higher performance; tailor the conditions that generate positive experience to find your ways of accessing this high-performance state. Adjust the external environment. An interpersonal environment with an ideal combination of encouragement and criticism or challenge facilitates optimal performance. 

Building strong foundational skills and multimodal resources serves you in sustaining flow states and tapping into turbo for peak performance bursts.

Balance skills and challenge; for anxiety-producing challenges, increase skill or decrease challenge by breaking the task into smaller pieces and building skills; for boredom-producing situations, make the task harder and expand the vision of the size and scope of the project.

To increase your sense of control, focus clearly on elements you can control and defocus on elements you can not control.

For clear and immediate feedback, seek external feedback, as well as self-reflective inner clarity. Monitor yourself, “How am I doing? Do I meet the demands I am facing?”

Merging action and awareness involves transcending the moment and simultaneously being completely aware of and flexibly responding to new information at the periphery.

For the absence of self-consciousness, engage fully, let go of overthinking and overtrying, increase mindful focus on the present, and detach from the outcome.

For time transformation, laser-like visualization techniques help build perception. Intensely recall past flow experiences to replicate and access this state.

For intrinsic motivation and autotelic experience, find aspects of the challenge that are intrinsically rewarding. Identify signature strengths and find new ways to use them in the service of the task.

At the core of psychological health is your capacity to fully take in and metabolize your whole experience. Be vitally engaged and fully involved with every detail of your life; be grounded in the sense of meaning and purpose; have emotional wellbeing; walk these three pathways to happiness.

A challenging activity that requires skills

Optimal experiences occur within goal-directed and rule-bound activities that require the investment of psychic energy and could not be done without the appropriate skills. An “activity” need not be active in the physical sense, and the “skill” necessary to engage in it need not be a physical skill.

For example, reading is an activity because it requires concentration of attention and has a goal; to do it, one must know the rules of written language. The skills involved in reading include literacy and the ability to translate words into images, empathize with fictional characters, recognize historical and cultural contexts, anticipate plot turns, criticize and evaluate the author’s style, and so on. In this broader sense, any capacity to manipulate symbolic information is a “skill,” such as the skill of the mathematician to shape quantitative relationships in his head or the musician’s skill in combining musical notes.

Another universally enjoyable activity is being with people; it requires using skills and abilities, such as feeling safe and relaxed to contact and open to sharing emotional experiences.

Any activity contains a bundle of opportunities for action, or “challenges,” that require appropriate skills to realize. For those who don’t have the right skills, the activity is not challenging; it is simply meaningless.

One way to find challenges is to enter a competitive situation. Competition is a quick way of developing complexity, stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.

Optimal experiences provide enjoyment and enrich life. Even routine details can be transformed into personally meaningful games that provide optimal experiences, for example, by imposing order in consciousness through the performance of patterned action. These “microflow” activities help us negotiate the doldrums of the day. But how enjoyable the activity is, depends ultimately on its complexity. The small automatic games woven into everyday life help reduce boredom but add little to the positive quality of the experience. For that, one needs to face more demanding challenges and use higher-level skills.

Enjoyment comes whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to her capabilities. For example, when playing tennis, a mismatch in skill level between opponents makes the less skilled player feel anxious and the better player feel bored. Likewise, an activity too simple relative to one’s skills is boring, while one that is too complex is frustrating. Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety when the challenges are balanced with the person’s capacity to act. Balancing challenges and skills improves the likelihood of enjoyment in the activity.

The merging of action and awareness

In optimal experience, 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 their actions. Attention is completely absorbed, and all relevant skills are engaged with the challenge. Concentration is complete; energy is flowing smoothly; movement is seemingly effortless. The flow experience appears to be effortless, yet it often requires strenuous physical exertion or a highly disciplined mental activity. It only happens with the application of skilled performance. Any lapse in concentration will erase it. And yet, while it lasts, consciousness works smoothly, and action follows action seamlessly. In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. Repeatedly we question our actions’ necessity and critically evaluate the reasons for carrying them out.

Clear goals and immediate feedback

In some creative activities, where goals are not set in advance, a person must develop a strong personal sense of what she intends to do. Even if the artist has no visual image of what the finished painting should look like, she has a sense of progressing in the right direction based on internalized criteria for “good” or “bad,” revealing after each brush stroke a sense of satisfaction.

The kind of feedback is often unimportant; what makes feedback information valuable is the symbolic message it contains: that I have succeeded in my goal. Such knowledge creates order in consciousness and strengthens the self-structure.

Any kind of feedback can be enjoyable, provided it is logically related to a goal in which one has invested psychic energy. Each of us is temperamentally sensitive to a certain range of information that we learn to value more than other people do, and it is likely that we will consider feedback involving that information to be more relevant than others might.

Concentration on the task at hand

Flow improves the quality of experience; the structured demands of the activity impose order and exclude the interference of disorder in consciousness. Beyond temporal focus, only a select range of information is allowed into awareness.

The paradox of control

The flow experience involves a sense of control, or more precisely, the lack of a sense of worry about losing control, which is typical in many situations of normal life. Instead, a sense of power arises to effect something of grace and beauty, a general feeling of wellbeing, and the possibility to attain perfection. The enjoyment derived from dangerous activities, such as rock climbing, hang gliding, race-car driving, or deep-sea diving, is not from the danger but from their ability to minimize it; the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.

The importance is in allowing the practitioner to develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error to as close to zero as possible. For example, the whole point of climbing is to avoid objective dangers as much as possible and to eliminate subjective dangers through rigorous discipline and sound preparation. People enjoy not the sense of being in control but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. It is only possible to experience a feeling of control if one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when an uncertain outcome is at stake, and one can influence that outcome, can a person know whether she is in control.

In games of chance, such as the spin of roulette, the turn of a card in blackjack, or the card game of poker, the sense of control must be irrelevant to the enjoyment. Yet, the gamblers who enjoy games of hazard are subjectively convinced that their skills play a major role in the outcome. Moreover, players of chance games often believe they have the gift of seeing into the future, at least within the restricted set of goals and rules that defines their game.

This sense of being in a world where entropy is suspended partly explains why flow-producing activities can become addictive. Some well-known chess masters became so comfortable with the beautifully clear-cut and logically ordered chess world that they turned their backs on the messy confusion of the “real” world. The exhilaration gamblers feel in “figuring out” random chance is even more notorious.

The potentially negative aspect of flow-producing enjoyable activities is their addictive quality. At this point, the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.

The loss of self-consciousness

The loss of the sense of a self separate from the world around it is sometimes accompanied by a feeling of union with the environment, whether it is the mountain, a team, or the “run” of hundreds of motorcycles roaring down the streets.

Preoccupation with the self consumes psychic energy because we often feel threatened in everyday life. Hundreds of times every day, we are reminded of the vulnerability of our self. And every time this happens, psychic energy is lost trying to restore order to consciousness.

But in flow, there is no room for self-scrutiny. Because enjoyable activities have clear goals, stable rules, and challenges well matched to skills, there is little opportunity for the self to be threatened. The only threat the mountain climber faces is the threat of the mountain, and the good climber is well-trained to face that threat and does not need to bring the self into play in the process.

The absence of the self from consciousness is not a passive obliteration of the self, but the optimal experience involves a very active role for the self. Loss of self-consciousness is not a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are. And being able to forget temporarily who we are is very enjoyable.

Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward. This feeling is based on a concrete experience of close interaction with some Other, an interaction that produces a rare sense of unity with these usually foreign entities. When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction, whether with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music, she, in effect, becomes part of a system of action greater than the individual self had been before. As a result, the self expands its boundaries and becomes more complex than it had been.

This growth of the self occurs only if the interaction is enjoyable, that is, if it offers nontrivial opportunities for action and requires a constant perfection of skills. Fundamentalist religions, mass movements, and extremist political parties also offer opportunities for self-transcendence and provide a welcome extension of the boundaries of the self, a feeling that one is involved in something great and powerful. The true believer also becomes part of a system in concrete terms because his psychic energy will be focused and shaped by the goals and rules of his belief. But the true believer is not interacting with the belief system; he usually lets his psychic energy be absorbed by it. From this submission, nothing new can come; consciousness may attain a welcome order, but it will be an order imposed rather than achieved. At best, the self of the true believer resembles a crystal: strong and beautifully symmetrical but very slow to grow.

In flow, a person is challenged to do her best and must constantly improve her skills; afterward, when the activity is over, the self that the person reflects upon is not the same self that existed before the flow experience: it is now enriched by new skills and fresh achievements.

The transformation of time

During the flow experience, the sense of time bears little relation to the passage of time as measured by the absolute convention of the clock. In rare exceptions, time tracking becomes very sensitive, and the performer is aware almost exactly of the durations and passage of seconds and minutes.

It needs to be clarified whether this flow dimension is just an epiphenomenon, a by-product of the intense concentration required for the activity at hand, or whether it is something that contributes in its own right to the positive quality of the experience. However, losing track of time is likely not one of the major elements of enjoyment.

The autotelic experience

The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself; it is a self-contained activity that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit but simply because the doing itself is the reward. When the experience is autotelic (auto: self ~ telos: goal), the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake; when it is not, the attention is focused on its consequences.

Most things we do are neither purely autotelic nor purely exotelic but combine the two. Often children, and adults, need external incentives to take the first steps in an activity that requires a difficult restructuring of attention. Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that one is initially reluctant to make. But once the interaction provides feedback on the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.

Many people feel the time they spend at work is essentially wasted, they are alienated from it, and the psychic energy invested in the job does nothing to strengthen their self. For quite a few people, free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information without using skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result, life passes through boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.

The autotelic experience, or flow, lifts life to a different level; involvement, enjoyment, feeling of control, and psychic energy reinforce the sense of self instead of being lost in the service of external goals. When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain.

Nothing in the world is entirely positive; every power can be misused. Optimal experience is a form of energy one can use to help or destroy. Energy is power, and power is only a means. The goals it applies to can make life richer or more painful.

The Marquis de Sade perfected the infliction of pain into a form of pleasure. Cruelty is a universal source of enjoyment for people who have not developed more sophisticated skills. Even in historically “civilized” societies, people are attracted to violence. War experience can be more exhilarating than anything encountered in civilian life. Much juvenile delinquency might be motivated by the need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, violence will attract those who cannot find their way to more complex autotelic experiences.

In the case of crime, the problem seems apparent, but what about scientific endeavors, such as the “sweet problem” of work on the atomic bomb or the manufacture of nerve gas, all of which can be deeply engaging to those involved in them? The flow experience, like everything else, is not “good” in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self. But whether the consequence of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria. The same is true, however, of all human activities, whether science, religion, or politics. A particular religious belief may benefit a person or a group but repress many others. It is an illusion to believe that any solution is beneficial for all people and at all times; no human achievement can be taken as the final word. We must constantly reevaluate what we do, lest habits and past wisdom blind us to new possibilities. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (Jefferson).

Learning to distinguish the useful and the harmful forms of flow and then making the most of the former while placing limits on the latter posits the task of learning how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people’s chances to enjoy theirs.