Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: The Concept Of ‘flow’

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: the concept of "flow"

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the most successful modern psychologists. People all over the world know his name, although it is difficult to pronounce. He calls his theory the ‘ psychology of optimal experience’. This is because he emphasizes the concept of flow , or mindfulness.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in a small Italian town once known as Fiume. Today it is part of Croatia and is called Rijeka. His family was Hungarian and had a very hard time during the Second World War. That led to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi immigrating to the US in 1956, with only a few cents to his name.

Once in the United States, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi enrolled in the psychology program at the University of Chicago. He received his doctorate in 1965 and published the book Flow not long after. The book has become an important reference point in modern psychology. He is still seen as one of the most important figures in a discipline called positive psychology .

Flowers that blow out of your hands

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the concept of ‘flow’

The idea behind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is that people are much happier when they enter a state of ‘ flow’  . This happens when you do something that completely absorbs your attention. Many people call this “being in the zone,” in other words, complete absorption into something and complete happiness while doing it.

This is how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the state of flow:

“Being fully involved in an activity because of that activity itself. The ego falls away. Every action, movement and thought inevitably follows the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you use your skills to the fullest.”

So it is a state where you focus all your attention on the task or activity. You also have a deep motivation to go with that attention. I n principle, do you have to do what you do. The result of all this is harmony, balance and above all happiness. The state of flow also has another name: ‘optimal experience’.

Bright spots in the brain

Things that lead to an optimal experience

Csikszentmihalyi conducted a 12-year study with people around the world. He found that, regardless of age, nationality or living conditions, almost everyone described the optimal experience in a similar way. That helped him define some of the things that come up when you get into a state of flow.

Here they are:

  • A challenge that will make sure you use all your skills. If the challenge requires the highest level of your skills, chances are you will start flowing .
  • Focus and Concentration. In a flow, your focus is so centered that the world and your ego disappear completely. Your whole being focuses on one thing and you enter an extreme state of concentration.
  • Clearly defined objectives. Csikszentmihalyi found that we enjoy things more when we have clear goals. If they are vague or unclear, your focus will fade.
  • Instant feedback. People need short-term feedback to reinforce their behavior. The feeling that you are on the right track gives your experience more intensity.
  • Exclusion of Other Information. In a state of flow, there is no room for information that has nothing to do with the activity in question.
  • A sense of control. When you’re in a flow, you feel completely in control of what’s happening. It is like a compass for your self-knowledge.
  • You lose your sense of self-awareness. In these kinds of situations, it’s almost as if your self-esteem has completely disappeared. This creates a kind of ‘freedom effect’ in you.
  • A change in your perception of time. This experience makes you feel like time has been squeezed. Three hours feels like 30 seconds in a state of flow.
Leaf floats on water

People have used Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas in many different fields. People in education, psychotherapy and even business have found a good use for it.

In addition, each of you has probably had one of these optimal experiences, or flows, before. You might even be able to have them more often if you work really hard on what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes are the best ways to get to this state. 

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