In psychology, the concept of “flow” is a state we attain when we enter completely into a challenging activity and forget everything else around us. It was coined by the Hungarian-American researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his house in Los Angeles, he spoke to us about the history behind his idea, and the role that simplicity and complexity play in it.
When and how did you come up with the concept of flow?
The idea must have come when I started rock climbing in Italy, before I emigrated to the United States. I did a lot of climbing in the Alps, in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. When I came into the US at first, Chicago was completely flat, and then I discovered the Grand Tetons. In the summers, I used to take a train or a bus and get down to Colorado and Wyoming and do mountain climbing. I started writing about climbing in journals as an experience of sport, but also as a way of discovering oneself and coming to terms with life.
I think it is probably very important that you gave the phenomenon that name, “flow”.
At first it was just a feeling. One day when I was swimming in a river up in Northern California, I thought: oh, that’s the feeling that I get when I climb. And I ended up calling that the flow experience, it was a natural analogy.
How did you come up with a scientific concept for that experience?
At first I did interviews with people who did things similar to what I did – rock climbers, skiers, long distance swimmers, marathon runners. I asked them how they feel and they told me stories and I copied the stories down. After a while I interviewed some climbers who were poets. They said: climbing is like writing poetry. And I said, how come? I tried to classify these experiences, analyze them and say, what is the important part? The word flow came out by trying to express the commonality of these various ways that people feel. And then I tried to develop ways of measuring it, first using questionnaires. They seemed insufficient because they were not very precise and they were confused by reconstruction and embellishment. How could I measure what people feel in the moment?
It sounds paradoxical – you want them to describe a situation where they really don’t want to stop.
I started experimenting with high school children wearing electronic pagers. First they wore pagers that were programmed to go on at certain times of the day, but that was predictable and they would be prepared for it. So I had to make it random. Pagers had just come out and were pretty expensive. So I had to get research grants to cover the cost, and I came up with a study with workers, to find out when they felt exhausted, and how that influenced their life outside of work.
And what would they record with these pagers?
Of course the date and time, whether they were at work or at home. And the questions were like: what were you thinking about? How happy were you? How much you were wishing to do something else? And so forth. Generally, people were very conscientious trying to answer them.
What did you find out with these thousands of data entries?
I knew from the interviews with the mountain climbers that they would say that the best experience they have is when they are doing their best and they feel they can do it well. So I knew that that balance of challenge and skill was a key to the climbers’ experience. And I wanted to know whether that was true also normal people who never climbed or even thought of climbing. And I found that surgeons report it when the surgery goes well, and automobile assembly workers feel the same way when they feel their work is going well. So it’s not just sports that causes that. It’s a feeling that we get when we are operating at the limits of our ability in a demanding task.
I came up with these eight combinations of challenge and skill based on these self reports. For example, you are anxious when your skill level is low and the challenge is high. You are in control when you’re confident of your skills, but the challenge is average. And when you feel highly challenged but at the same time very confident, you’re in flow.
One explanation that you gave for why the flow state is so deeply satisfying is that your brain is fully challenged in these moments, you can’t think of other things that might worry or distract you.
The human mind is programmed to turn to threats, to unfinished business, to failures and unfulfilled desires when it has nothing else more urgent to do, when attention is left free to wander. Without a task to focus our attention, most of us find ourselves getting progressively depressed. In flow there is no room for such rumination.
Did you also do demonstrate that with brain imaging experiments?
Oh yes. And those show very clear patterns. You can tell when a person is in flow by looking at a brain scan.
Let’s talk about simplicity. Flow isn’t simple, right? It has to do with complex tasks. Can you tell me what role simplicity and complexity play in the flow experience?
In a sense, flow is always about the reduction of difficulty, of obstacles. But that can get to be very complex. For instance a surgeon who removes an ulcer that is spreading in the body has a very difficult job. But the job is really to make this person like they were before, to make the organ work adequately. You have to do very difficult things to return the organism to a balanced state where it can work. The notion is to return things to an orderly state.
The activity is challenging and complex, but at the same time it feels simple and effortless?
It is effortless because you are doing things that are in your range of expertise. If you give a surgeon a person who is so mutilated that he can’t live anymore, he will say, I better let this person die. You have to have the expertise to judge what the difficulty is and if you can cope with the difficulty, then that will produce flow. So a really good climber can tolerate more risk as he gets better. And at some point he has to stop. He has discovered where the limit was and says: okay, climbing is boring now. Many of them can’t do that, and that’s when they get killed because then they try to do things that they can’t do.
In one of your books, you illustrate the relationship of simplicity and complexity with the workings of a camera.
Think of how a photographic camera worked fifty years ago, when it was a simple machine with a lens and a shutter. If one wanted to use it indoors one had to attach a flash to it; to shoot a distant object a telephoto lens had to be added. The film had to be threaded by hand. In other words, the simple machine was very complicated to use. Now we have a complex machine that is very simple to use: All the functions of the flash, the telephoto, the light meter, and so on, have been built into the camera; the photographer has but to aim and shoot. In the same way, the more complex your skills get, the more simple the outcome may look.
Tell us about some of the characteristics for a flow state.
The main characteristic is that you want to do what you are doing so much, you forget everything else. You forget you’re hungry, you forget you have to go to work in an hour. It happens when you are gardening, when you are reading, some people get it from work, some people get it from their family life, some people get it more from leisure activities. But there are clear patterns by age, by gender, by education, by occupation. If I look at one of these self-reports, I can generally guess fairly correctly what kind of person gave it.
Some of the descriptions look a little paradoxical at first sight. One is the question of control. Some people say they feel like they are fully in control, and some people say it’s not me that’s doing this, it was an external force controlling me. How can you reconcile that?
Usually people feel in control when they are in the flow, but not too much, because if you feel that you are are too much in control, you’re bored. There are moments when control is low in flow activities like climbing, but it’s very few moments of out of control. Otherwise you don’t stay alive long.
Another paradox is how time feels. Some people say time flies and others say time stands still.
Few people say that time it stands still, they say that they are not aware of time. Time doesn’t exist for them. In other words, rather than having to chase the clock, we come to learn that we ourselves control the subjective experience of the passage of time.
In a book, you told a story about your half brother Moricz who was collecting minerals.
The last time I saw him, he showed me a rock from his collection and told me that he was looking at it a few days earlier. He started examining it at nine in the morning, it was sunny outside. At some point he looked up, he thought a storm was coming – but then he realized that the sun was setting, it was seven in the evening.
Some people say, and they are using that word “flow” again: “It’s flowing through me”. Like the universe is taking control. You are talking about the loss of ego, which makes it an experience that is very close to the spiritual and religious experience. People are talking about a higher purpose, they feel part of something bigger.
For some people it is a religious experience, some people are just surprised by it. They say it’s very strange, I don’t feel like I had to prove myself. I felt one with nature, I felt one with my family.
Is it easier for people with religious beliefs to get into this state?
It’s easier to have that experience connected to something more transcendent, something beyond the self. Other people may experience it as easily, but they think it’s something happening in their brain that they don’t know what it is.
If you have two rock climbers, one is a very religious person, the other is very rational. Is it harder for the rational person to get into the state?
The rational person will describe it like, I felt really strange and good. I didn’t feel constrained in my body. And the religious person would maybe say, I felt closer to God. Almost all of the world’s religions have discovered their own version of flow and tried to make it a part of their practice, whether through ritual, prayer, or methods of inner discipline.
Let’s talk about work and business. I can imagine people experiencing flow in creative jobs or when they’re managers of a company or artists or athletes, but what about people in very ordinary jobs that they might not even have picked because they like them, but because they need to feed their families?
As I said before, the first work we did with pagers was with factory workers who were putting together machinery, very dirty, very dangerous work. They can experience flow too. I worked with people who prepared food for airlines. Or I compared traditional farmers with modernized farmers.
Who was happier?
The traditional farmers were happier and more often in flow at work, the modernized farmers who use equipment were much less happy.
But what’s the solution? We can’t go back to farming like 500 years ago.
No. Either you change the work – or you give them more leisure time. And what we choose to do is give leisure.
But you are still spending 40 hours a week at work. What can a company do to make the situation better for their employees?
We found that the same things that give flow in leisure tend to give flow at work. Namely you find the right balance between challenge and skills. You get clear feedback on what you are doing. You know why you’re doing it. The goals are clear and you get a good feeling that you know what you’re doing. These are the key elements. The rest comes with it.
You say that even people in very adverse situations, like refugees or people in prisoner camps, can experience flow.
For example, in some concentration camps inmates found meaningful work. If they were good at doing things with iron implements, they got work as iron mongers and they could do things for the camp. If they could work with wood, they could start doing furniture. Anything that allows you to express your skills makes you feel better, even in the camp. The worst off were people like Talmudic scholars who didn’t have anything to read, or brain surgeons who no longer remembered forgot how to cure a sore throat.
You wrote in one of your books: “If everyone were genuinely happy, there would be no need for business any longer.” Are you propagating a simple life, with no need for material things?
It is generally agreed that the best indication of whether a person is happy is that he or she no longer desires anything else. But It is not that materialism in itself is bad, because up to a certain point owning and using artifacts does make us happier. Everyone is a materialist to some extent, and we wouldn’t be human if we were not. But research suggests that excessive concern for material possessions is unhealthy.
You also describe the individual development of a person as a path from a simple to a more and more complex personality. However, you write, some people never get past the age of the “terrible twos” when they want everything to go their way. “Their self-centeredness and impulsivity usually mark them in the eyes of the majority as immature sociopaths.”
Yes, and sometimes those people are leaders or CEOs. They may even attract admiration with their self-assurance that resembles charisma. If a firm is to do good business it should be a place where everyone is encouraged to progress toward complexity.
Can everybody find some activity that is good for him or her, puts them in a flow state?
Yes, but very many people don’t realize what their skills are until late in life. And they say: my gosh, I spent 60 years doing something I didn’t like – and only now I found out what I really like. I like repairing old rugs, I like polishing silver, I like to read poetry – I never knew that.
So what is it for you now. You don’t climb anymore, I guess.
I don’t climb anymore. I liked to play soccer, but I don’t do that any more either, at 85 years of age. Writing can be very enjoyable. Working with students can be very enjoyable. Seeing them suddenly light up and say “yeah, maybe I could do that” – that kind of thing is constructive, productive and makes me feel good. And so is all the time I can spend with my family.
was born in 1934 in what was then Fiume in Italy, today Rijeka in Croatia. His father was a Hungarian diplomat who remained in Italian exile after the Communists assumed power in his native country. Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Rome, then left for the USA at the age of 22 in order to study at the University of Chicago. He did his doctorate in psychology and became known for his work on happiness and creativity. In 1975, he developed the concept of “flow.” He described this phenomenon in a series of books that have been translated into many different languages. Today, Csikszentmihalyi lives with his wife Isabella near Los Angeles, and teaches at Claremont Graduate University.