Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

by J.D. Roth

For fifty years, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “me-high cheek-sent-me-high-ee”) has studied human happiness and creativity. Much of his work has focused on flow, which is his term for “optimal experience”.

Here’s how he describes it:

We have all experienced times when instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we [feel] in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment.

Csíkszentmihályi says that, contrary to what we might expect, these peak experiences don’t come during passive moments. We enjoy a night out with friends or a vacation to Italy, but these aren’t the best moments of our lives. Instead, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

People are happiest when they forget their surroundings to focus on doing their best at something that challenges and interests them. In short, happiness is produced by total engagement in the pursuit of excellence.

We can experience flow during activities as basic as riding a bike or as complex as building a bridge.

Sometimes flow is achieved through physical activity. Athletes refer to this state as “being in the zone”. People achieve this state of bliss while climbing mountains, sailing boats, or swimming oceans. But even mundane activities like mowing the lawn or baking cookies can produce flow, if they’re done well.

Peak experience also comes from mental pursuits. Many computer become so engrossed in their work that time streams past like water. I experience flow while writing.

This morning, for instance, I’ve been working to complete my guide on how to become CFO of your own life. This will be published next week as part of a complete “Get Rich Slowly” course I’m creating. While I wrote this morning, my mind was so active and so engaged that it almost felt euphoric. I was happy. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere other than in front of my computer, writing about money.

I was in a state of flow.

For more on flow, spend a few moments to watch Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk on how flow is the secret to happiness:

If you want to learn more, pick up a copy of his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Updated: 14 April 2014

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