So focused that we forget everything else around us: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about the discovery of the flow state.
In psychology, the concept of “flow” is the exhilarating state we attain when we enter completely into a challenging activity. 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.
Mr. Csikszentmihalyi, 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 first came to the US, Chicago was completely flat. But then I discovered the Grand Tetons. In the summers, I used to take a train or a bus 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 myself and coming to terms with life.
Was it very important for you to give the phenomenon the 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 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 me – rock climbers, skiers, long-distance swimmers, marathon runners. I asked them how they feel, 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, to 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.
What did you find out with your data?
I knew from the interviews with the mountain climbers that they would say their best experiences are when they are doing their best, and feel they can do it well. So I knew that this balance between challenge and skill was a key element in the climbers’ experience. And I wanted to know whether that was also true of normal people who have never climbed or even thought of climbing. And I found that surgeons report it when surgery goes well, and automobile assembly workers feel the same way when they feel their work is going well. 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 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 the 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 our 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. You have to have the expertise to judge what the difficulty is. 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 is, and says: okay, climbing is boring now. Many of them can’t do that, and then they get killed because they try to do things they can’t do.
Did you also 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.
Tell us about some of the characteristics of a state of flow.
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 made it.
What can companies do to help its employees reach the flow state?
We found that the same things that provide flow in leisure tend to give flow at work. It’s about finding the right balance between a challenge and your 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.
Can everybody find an activity that is good for them, and puts them in a flow state?
Yes, but 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’ve found out what I really like. I like repairing old rugs, I like polishing silver, I like to read poetry – I never knew that.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in 1934 in what was then Fiume in Italy, today Rijeka in Croatia. 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.
Photos: Gyula Czimbal /MTI / picturedesk.com.
This article was first published in LGT's client journal CREDO.