Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Book cover

This was one of those books that I had seen referenced probably hundreds of times, but hadn’t actually read until now. My mom owns it, and I read it while staying with her for a few weeks.

I often have what I feel is a “flow” experience while doing computer programming–a sense of being carried away by the work, losing track of time, being fully engaged and leaving self-consciousness behind. (I am glad to say that I recently started a job where I am able to do this quite a bit.) So, I was curious to read the canonical description of flow experience, and to see what other insights the author might have.

I certainly think I was right in categorizing my programming experience as such, but I ended up feeling like the author cast too broad a net in characterizing “flow” experiences. Perhaps this was partly the pressure of writing a popular-press book, but MC came across to me as the proverbial man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. It seemed that he was trying to make “flow experience” coextensive with “fulfilling experience,” in a way that didn’t really convince me. For example, in one section he tries to categorize socializing with friends as a “flow” experience, but I didn’t buy it. It’s true that one can really enjoy oneself, and lose track of time, while talking with good friends, but it seems to me to be missing other key elements of the flow experience. For instance, flow is related to making use of skills in a challenging environment, and this to me does not seem like a good description of fellowship with friends. You can stretch the terms to accommodate it, but it doesn’t really seem to fit. I think MC should be content with having described a particular type of positive state of being, without trying to shoehorn other kinds of positive experience into it.

In a similar way, I think MC puts too much emphasis on flow as a be-all end-all goal. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue, but I think the terminology of “optimal experience” that he uses is partly at fault. It implies some sort of one-dimensional scale on which experiential quality can be measured, and thus implies that every type of activity should be shaped so as to produce more flow. This view ends up taking MC to strange places that sometimes border on the absurd, in my view. For example, he talks about taking walks as a pleasurable activity, but argues that the pleasure of walks is at its highest when one goes about it with goals in mind; for example, to walk the most different blocks one can or to see the most interesting and different things. To me, this is a completely wrongheaded way of thinking about the pleasure of walking, brought about by the author’s maintained assumption that there is only one flavor of positive experience.

This type of critique also relates to an article that I recently read and enjoyed very much, “The Midlife Crisis,” by Kieran Setiya (thanks to my dad for pointing me to it).


Setiya is interested in giving a characterization of the nature of the midlife crisis, what brings it about, and how people might combat it. His arguments are closely related to MC’s, but I think the two ultimately give very different prescriptions for what sorts of activity are to be valued most highly. Both authors give a lot of attention to activities that are pursued for their own sakes, and in fact use very similar terminology–MC’s “autotelic” activities and Setiya’s “atelic” activities. Both authors see these activities as very important for human well-being, but they are talking about slightly–or perhaps I should say very–different things. Both authors see it as important for individuals to pursue activities that are self-chosen and non-instrumental; that is, pursued for their own sakes. But MC is talking about activities with internal goals, whereas Setiya is talking about activities with no “goals” as such at all.

The walking example I gave earlier is an OK case in which to consider this distinction, but it’s not all that fair to MC because it was one of the weakest points in the book (in my view). I think a fairer comparison would relate to mountain climbing. MC actually uses climbing as an example quite frequently in his book. MC would see a classic example of flow, and thus great value, in the activity of a mountain climber who was constantly setting higher goals for himself–perhaps to climb the local highest mountain, then the highest mountain in the state, then the highest mountain in all 50 states, etc. For Setiya, though, this type of repeated goal-setting, even if totally intrinsically motivated, is not a good template for an enjoyable life. He would argue that it is doomed, after a while, to a sense of “is this all there is?” Rather, he would argue that the climber would be better served by developing an “atelic” approach to mountain climbing; that is, one in which he simply took pleasure in the experience of climbing, without heed to any particular goal. As Setiya says, “there is nothing you need to do in order to perform an atelic activity other than what you are doing right now. If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on your way to achieving your end. You are already there.”

It is perhaps obvious at this point that I side with Setiya. I think MC is right that goal-oriented flow activities produce a certain type of positive experience in our brains, but I think this observation can be carried too far. I see MC’s influence in the “gamification” of life in many dimensions brought about by the quantification movement and the smartphone nexus–things like Fitbit and Foursquare–and I don’t see them as net positives for human flourishing.

I’ll close with a quote that I learned secondhand but like very much, and one that I think both MC and Setiya would affirm:

“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”

-Charles Kingsley

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars