‘Flow’ … being completely involved in an activity for its own sake

A pioneer and leading thinker in the world of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, passed away last month at the age of 87 (for anyone who is not a native Hungarian speaker, I have been told that ‘MeHigh ChickSentMeHigh’ comes pretty close to the proper pronunciation).  Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work centered on the concept of ‘Flow’ a phrase he coined to describe the state of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” His research documented and analyzed these experiences in athletes, artists, musicians and others in all walks of life. 

Csikszentmihalyi was the son of a Hungarian diplomat.  When the communists took over in 1949, his father refused to pledge allegiance to the party. Two older brothers were later killed at the hand of the Communists, one as a soldier and the other in a prison camp.  The remainder of the family was stripped of all their assets and forced into exile.  Young Mihalyi moved to Rome and worked to put himself through school, eventually ending up at the University of Chicago where he earned a PhD in Psychology in 1965.   

During research for his thesis, Csikszentmihalyi observed that while there were hundreds of classified psychological disorders, there was very little known about what makes people happy. He devoted his career to uncovering and describing the characteristics of experiences where individuals feel good – the field that is now known as ‘positive psychology.’ After decades of study, he concluded: “Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control their inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives…” 

His 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” is one that we have reread multiple times and have given as a gift to countless friends and colleagues.  Achieving flow experiences is critical to happiness and mental health and has broad implications for work as well as life. Designing your life to maximize these experiences can make a huge difference in your attitude and outlook. 

Flow experiences are characterized by full immersion in a task creating a feeling of energized focus, involvement and enjoyment in the task itself.  People describe a sense of full absorption, in the extreme losing track of temporal concerns – think about the painter who is so absorbed in his work that he forgets to eat or bath for two days, or the rock-climber who takes two hours to ascend 18 inches up the rock face, as she analyzes each potential hand or foot hold to choose an optimal path (or perhaps your teenager playing video games, which sadly have been intentionally designed to create an addictive Flow state). 

We have written elsewhere about corporate culture and the importance of intrinsic motivation in tapping into the discretionary effort that is so critical to today’s knowledge economy.  It turns out that thoughtful companies can provide the prerequisites for Flow experiences which are, by definition, intrinsically motivating – engagement in the task is inherently rewarding and excellence becomes its own goal. Creating an environment where more people achieve Flow at work requires: 

  • Clear goals and objectives, with some discretion in how those goals are achieved 
  • Immediate and unambiguous feedback, allowing real-time adjustment in approach 
  • A balance between skill level and perceived challenge (tasks that are too easy induce boredom and those that are too challenging produce anxiety – both these have a negative impact on performance) 

Clearly all of these have implications for organizational design, and many of you can think about corporate policies that undermine these attributes. In his later work, Csikszentmihalyi focused on this connection, summarizing his findings in a 2004 paper co-authored with Kathryn Britton: “Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development.” 

Those who regularly read these blogs know that we like concepts that are elegant in their simplicity, broadly applicable and verifiable – Flow fits all those characteristics. As one example, there is a segment of the population that never reports experiencing Flow. While small, this segment is dramatically over-represented in the populations of prisons and mental institutions, reinforcing that periodic Flow experiences are critical for a stable and mentally healthy life. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had lots of reasons to think about unhappiness and could have added volumes to the study of psychological disorders. But instead, he chose to focus on what makes a positive experience and that has made a huge difference.  We are all better off because of this simple yet powerful concept. Cheers to a life well-spent! 

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