Flow

Basically this is a book review published at Blogcritics which I have modified a little since publishing it there.


Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience(ISBN 0060162538 , published in 1990, has been influential in several areas of psychology including sports and leisure, game design and theories of creativity. The language of flow has taken hold in business psychology, and flow is coming into vogue as a metaphor of engaged living within the major religions as well as among more alternative thinkers. He wrote a shorter version, more directly aimed at the self-help or popular psychologogy markets in 1997, Finding Flow (ISBN 0-465-02411-4).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was an academic clinical psychologist at the University of Chicago. His approach is based in humanistic psychology, so it impressionistic and oriented to feeling, and not based in neurobiology or cognitive psychology. His research is in the form of analysis of subjective reports and surveys, rather than standardized tests. His field of study was happiness. He gathered data on why some people take great pleasure in some leisure activities, and why some people can be happy in what might seem to be boring jobs and work situations. His answer is that people can become engaged in tasks, finding a pleasant flow in identifying challenges, meeting them, and being positively engaged in tasks.
People who are busy with a meaningful tasks don’t have time to be anxious and depressed. Some people don’t like their work but they like challenging recreational activities like mountain climbing and organize their lives around fulfilling hobbies.
This seems to be simple common sense, or common experience. Cognitive psychologists and educational psychologists have developed theories of learning based on balancing challenges to accomplishments within a scheme for increasing competence. He has gathered some evidence, albeit in the form of subjective reports, to support his argument. He doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the cognitive work, and he presents flow as his own new, modern psychological theory. His theories about why complex and challenging activities are enjoyable and important in leading a healthy, happy life are interesting and useful, but the theory and the book have significant limitations.
The book is reasonably clear, but is not particularly well-written. It sounds naive and romantic, and it is full of the jargon of humanistic psychology (for instance concepts of psychic energy, psychic entropy, autotelic personality). He mentions the theories and main players in humanistic psychology , Maslow, Rogers, Allport, with some debt to Jung. In Finding Flow (the 1997 sequel) he tries to distance his theories from other theories and thinkers in humanistic psychology. I don’t think he does that successfully. He mainly presents his theory of flow as method of self-actualization within the main stream of humanistic psychology. He also dives deep into dreamy pool near the end of his book, like all the humastic thinkers since Jung – mysterical insight dressed up as science.
His basic claim is that people are happy in activities that generate flow. He recognizes that people are also happy when basic needs are met in a pleasant way – good food, erotic sex, but he distinguishes between mere pleasure and the enjoyment of a complex experience. The mystical aspect of his work is that he advocates seeking flow in to the point of losing self-consciousness and becoming engaged in the flow of life.
His effort to distinguish between ordinary pleasure and enjoyable flow is largely semantic and largely unconvincing, and this false dichotomy is probably the key flaw in his philosophy. Flow is simply a feeling of pleasure. It rewarding, and like the other pleasures, it can be addictive. It is not an absolute good.
He tries to build a system of thought and live around flow. He holds that the complex pleasures of creating art, writing books, making music and climbing mountains are better than the simple pleasures of working people, and his project is the improvement of the lower classes by teaching them to find flow instead of watching TV. His biases are transparent. Like the other humanistic psychologists, he is working within a system of thought which aspires to imitate Stoic philosophy but seems more influenced by neo-Platonism, European Romanticism, some Indian and Oriental religiion and neo-hippie consciousness-altering mysticism. He basically implies that humanity will be enlightened if more people can be led from the low pleasures of common culture to the higher enjoyment of living in a state of flow.
I agree with much of what he says about living an examined and purposeful life. (I am obviously less enchanted with humanistic psychology which mainly a recycling of Romantic ideas and Eastern religion under the pretext of science). I think popular culture had become fragmented by the commercialization of sports and art, and by fluffy thinking. We are living in an era of bread and circuses. My criticism is that his system undervalues the simple pleasures of shelter, food, intimacy, drama, ritual and social living and values altered consciousness as a higher pleasure.
The Stoics felt that virtue is its own reward, while flow theorists seem to believe that anything that produces pleasurable flow is good. The author is more of a hedonist than a Stoic.
I think this book is useful in its discussion of the role of leisure and the importance of being engaged in fulfilling leisure activities. While his claims for the moral importance of flow are overstated, he is very persuasive in identifying the importance of using leisure time in challenging activities, and engaging in life with people, instead of sitting on the couch alone.
At the same time, ironically, his noble project has been subverted as his theories have been applied to design video games that are full of nearly addictive faux flow experiences, which remorsely consume precious time. The Playstation was released in 1994 and the psychology of flow has been a central concept of game design.

2 thoughts on “Flow”

  1. Interesting article. Based on your comments, I would agree that the concept of Flow has been used to enrich video games. Having played (obsessively) a number of long and involved games, I can say that the newer games do make a serious attempt to engage the player on a number of levels, from the simple realism of settings and engaging with game characters, to complex puzzles embedded within the flow (used in its non-psychological sense) of the game. However, video games are not a substitute for real life engagements, and that’s obvious in the way that kids (and other players) tire of them fairly quickly and move on to something else. One interesting aspect of modern gaming is multiplayer functionality. Nearly all modern games, including little hand-helds like Gameboy, offer players the chance to engage each other, using the game as the context of that engagement. Watching my son play on the Playstation with his friends, it is clearly a highly social phenomenon in which the participants are engaged in the Flow aspects of the game as well as the social aspects of talking with and competing against one another. It’s quite fascinating to watch. As I said, however, the more exciting activities of “rolling down a hill of snow” or “I’ll chase you until you fall down” tend to draw them away sooner than later.

  2. Brave Kelso

    I mentioned video games because they illustrate a couple of things about the theory of flow and the writer’s pretensions. While he makes claims for how flow can relieve anxiety and build happiness, it really only works to build more intense entertainment experiences. The practical applications of this kind of psychology are usually in entertainment, games, lifestyle advertising. His ideas about life in general have some value, but very little to do with flow and aren’t all that original – not that there is any harm in rediscovering or restating them.

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