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Flow Book Summary – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What you will learn from reading Flow:

– How creating an internal scorecard can give you lasting happiness.

– Why being left alone creates anxiety in most people and what to do about it.

– How the universe wasn’t set up for our needs and why that creates unhappiness.

The universe wasn’t created to answer to our needs:

“The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of J. H. Holmes. “It is simply indifferent.”

The primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs. Frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of life. And whenever some of our needs are temporarily met, we immediately start wishing for more.

To deal with these obstacles, every culture develops with time protective devices-religions, philosophies, arts, and comforts-that help shield us from chaos. 

They help us believe that we are in control of what is happening and give reasons for being satisfied with our lot. But these shields are effective only for a while; after a few centuries, sometimes after only a few decades, a religion or belief wears out and no longer provides the spiritual sustenance it once did.  

When people try to achieve happiness on their own, without the support of a faith, they usually seek to maximize pleasures that are either biologically programmed in their genes or are out as attractive by the society in which they live. Wealth, power, and sex become the chief goals that give direction to their strivings. But the quality of life cannot be improved this way. 

The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of recontentment. 



A thoroughly socialized person is one who desires only the rewards that others around him have agreed he should long for-rewards often grafted onto genetically programmed desires. He may encounter thousands of potentially fulfilling experiences, but he fails to notice them because they are not the things he desires. 

The messages are very different, but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a social system that exploits our energies for its own purposes. 

The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. 

When you can define what you measure and how to generate internal feedback not external you take back control.  

Socially accepted symbols can be deceptive: they have a tendency to distract from the reality they are supposed to represent. And the reality is that the quality of life does not depend directly on what others think of us or on wnat we own. The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quallty of experience.

There are literally thousands of [self-help books:] in print… explaining how to get rich, powerful, loved, or slim… Yet even if their advice were to work, what would be the result afterward in the unlikely event that one did turn into a slim, well-loved, powerful millionaire? Usually what happens is that the person finds himself back at square one, with a new list of wishes, just as dissatisfied as before.


Consciousness creates order from senses:

The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body. In this sense, it functions as a clearinghouse for sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas, establishing priorities among all the diverse information. 

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalised social goals. 


Chunking and reduction:

The optimists claim that through the course of evolution the nervous system has become adept at “chunking” bits of information so that processing capacity is constantly expanded. Simple functions like adding a column of numbers or driving a car grow to be automated, leaving the mind free to deal with more data. We also learn how to compress and streamline information through symbolic means language, math, abstract concepts, and stylised narratives. 


Personality traits are attention structures:

The names we use to describe personality traits-such as extrovert, high achiever, or paranoid-refer to the specific patterns people have used to structure their attention. At the same party, the extrovert will seek out and enjoy interactions with others, the high achiever will look for useful business contacts, and the paranoid will be on guard for signs of danger he must avoid. Attention can be invested in innumerable ways, ways that can make life either rich or miserable. 

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. 


Psychic Entropy:

The basic pattern is always the same: some information that conflicts with an individual’s goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how central that goal is to the self and on how severe the threat to it is, some amount of attention will have to be mobilised to eliminate the danger, leaving less attention free to deal with other matters.  

Every piece of information we process gets evaluated for its bearing on the self. Does it threaten our goals, does it support them, or is it neutral?  

The opposite state from the condition of psychic entropy is optimal experience. When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy. But whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: “You are doing all right.” The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment. 


Disorder, the minds default state:

We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel psychic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other by themselves without a hitch.

But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness-a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

But having a portable set of rules that the mind can work with is of great benefit even in normal life. People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers, and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.  

If we have become dependent on television, on drugs, and on facile calls to political or religious salvation, it is because we have so little to fall back on, so few internal rules to keep our mind from being taken over by those who claim to have the answers. Without the capacity to provide its own information, the mind drifts into randomness.


The 8 Characteristics of Flow:

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.  

Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.  

Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.  

Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.  

Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.  

Seventh, 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. 

Building and growing skills is the key to flow,  without cultivating the necessary skills, one cannot expect to take true enjoyment in a pursuit.


Word origins that are interesting:


The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward. 


The roots of the word “compete” are the Latin con petire, which meant “to seek together.”


In the ancient Greek usage, “politics” referred to whatever involved people in affairs that went beyond personal and family welfare.

Amateur / Dilettante:

An amateur or a dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally, “amateur,” from the Latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a “dilettante,” from the Latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity.


Amateur Vs Experts:

The bad connotations that the terms amateur and dilettante have earned for themselves over the years are due largely to the blurring of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. An amateur who pretends to know as much as a professional is probably wrong, and up to some mischief. 

The point of becoming an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals on their own turf, but to use a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills, and to create order in consciousness.


The 4 Types of Games:

Roger Caillois, the French psychological anthropologist, has divided the world’s games (using that word in its broadest sense to include every form of pleasurable activity) into four broad classes, depending on the kind of experiences they provide.  

Agon includes games that have competition as their main feature, such as most sports and athletic events. 

Alea is the class that includes all games of chance, from dice to bingo. 

Ilinx, or vertigo, is the name he gives to activities that alter consciousness by scrambling ordinary perception, such as riding a merry-go-round or skydiving. 

Mimicry is the group of activities in which alternative realities are created, such as dance, theater, and the arts in general. 


Why your goals in an interaction matter:

But is sex always enjoyable? By now you will be able to guess that the answer depends on what happens in the consciousness of those involved. The same sexual act can be experienced as painful, revolting, frightening, neutral, pleasant, pleasurable, enjoyable, or ecstatic-depending on how it is linked to a person’s goals. A rape may not be distinguishable physically from a loving encounter, but their psychological effects are worlds apart. 

Goals at work:

Conflict at work is often due to a person’s feeling defensive out of a fear of losing face. To prove himself he sets certain goals for how others should treat him, and then expects rigidly that others will fulfill those expectations. When they aren’t filled, people get frustrated and resort to more nefarious tactics to get what they want such as politics and gossip.  

Goals within a family or relationship:

Unless the partners invest psychic energy in the relationship, conflicts are inevitable, simply because each individual has goals that are to a certain extent divergent from those of all other members of the family. Without good lines of communication the distortions will and become amplified, until the relationship falls apart.


Why gamification is important:

The more a job inherently resembles a game-with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback-the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development. 


Why constraints are liberating:

Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to a set of laws. In other words, accepting limitations is liberating. For example, by making up one’s mind to invest psychic energy exclusively in a monogamous marriage, regardless of any problems, obstacles, or more attractive options that may come along later, one is freed of the constant pressure of trying to maximise emotional returns. 


Unconditional acceptance and emotional security:

Unconditional acceptance is especially important to children. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child when he fails to measure up, the child’s natural playfulness will be gradually replaced by chronic anxiety. However, if the child feels that his parents are unconditionally committed to his welfare, he can then relax and explore the world without fear; otherwise he has to allocate psychic energy to his own protection, thereby reducing the amount he can freely dispose of.  

Early emotional security may well be one of the conditions that helps develop an autotelic personality in children. Without this, it is difficult to let go of the self long enough to experience flow. 


Order, chaos and Dissipative Structures:

One fact that does seem clear, however, is that the ability to make order out of chaos is not unique to psychological processes. In fact, according to some views of evolution, complex life forms depend for their existence on a capacity to extract energy out of entropy-to recycle waste into structured order.  

The Nobel prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine calls physical systems that harness energy which otherwise would be dispersed and lost in random motion “dissipative structures.” For example, the entire vegetable kingdom on our planet is a huge dissipative structure because it feeds on light, which normally would be a useless by-product of the sun’s combustion. 


Inner Conflict:

Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends. 

When we can imagine only a few opportunities and few possibilities, it is relatively easy to achieve harmony. Desires are simple, choices clear. There is little room for conflict and no need to compromise. This is the order of simple systems-order by default, as it were. It is a fragile harmony; step by step with the increase of complexity, the chances of entropy generated internally by the system increase as well.