“Flow” Quotes

Here’s the parts of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that I found most interesting. As always, if you like the quotes, please buy the book here.

“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.” (2)

“Ask yourself whether you are happy,” said J.S. Mill, “and you cease to be so.”” (2)

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a  voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (3)

“Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.” (4)

“I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (4)

“Everything we experience – joy or pain, interest or boredom – is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like.” (6)

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realist goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives.” (6)

“I shall argue that the primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs. Frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of life. And whenever some of our needs are temporarily met, we immediately start wishing for more.” (7)

“With affluence and power come escalating expectations, and as our level of wealth and comforts keep increasing, the sense of well-being we hoped to achieve keeps receding into the distance.” (10)

“The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.” (10)

“Religions are only temporarily successful attempts to cope with the lack of meaning in life; they are not permanent answers.” (14)

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.” (16)

“It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response built into our genes for the preservation of the species, not for the purpose of our own personal advantage. The pleasure we take in eating is an efficient way to ensure that the body will get the nourishment it needs. The pleasure of sexual intercourse is an equally practical method for the genes to program the body to reproduce and thereby to ensure the continuity of the genes.” (17)

“At certain times in history cultures have taken it for granted that a person wasn’t fully human unless he or she learned to master thoughts and feelings… people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity, who let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community. In other historical periods, such as the one in which we are now living, the ability to control oneself is not held in high esteem. People who attempt it are thought to be faintly ridiculous, uptight, or not quite “with it.”” (23)

“Consciousness has developed the ability to override its genetic instructions and to set its own independent course of action.” (24)

“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as ti takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.” (31)

“The outside event appears in consciousness purely as information, without necessarily having a positive or negative value attached to it. It is the self that interprets that raw information in the context of its own interests, and determines whether it is harmful or not.” (38)

“There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.” (43)

“A researcher found that very wealthy persons report being happy on the average 77 percent of the time, while persons of average wealth say they are happy only 62 percent of the time.” (45)

“The authors report that a person’s financial situation is one of the least important factors affecting overall satisfaction with life.” (45)

“The phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements cause a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.” (49)

“The challenges of competition can be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.” (50)

“One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.” (53)

“A rock climber explains how it feels when he is scaling a mountain: “You are so involved in what you are doing that you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity.. You don’t’ see yourself as separate from what you are doing.” (53)

“Enjoyable activities require a complete focusing of attention on the task at hand – thus leaving no room in the mind for irrelevant information.” (58)

“All I can remember is the last thirty seconds, and all I can think ahead is the next five minutes.” (58)

“What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines.” (61)

“When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.” (62)

“Loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are. And being able to forget temporarily who we are seems to be very enjoyable. When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are. Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.” (64)

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually beings to be intrinsically rewarding.” (68)

“The elders [of an Indian tribe in British Columbia] said, at times the world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning. So the elders, in their wisdom, would decide that the entire village should move, those moves occurring every 25 to 30 years. The entire population would move to a different part of the Shushwap land and there, they found challenge. There were new streams to figure out, new game trails to learn, new areas where the balsamroot would be plentiful. Now life would regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and healthy. Incidentally, it also allowed exploited resources in one area to recover after years of harvesting.” (80)

“Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience.” (81)

“One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment. Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did.” (83)

“When the now extinct natives of the Caribbean islands were put to work in the plantations of the conquering Spaniards, their lives became so painful and meaningless that they lost interest in survival, and eventually ceased reproducing. It is probably that many cultures disappeared in a similar fashion, because they were no longer able to provide the experience of enjoyment.” (85)

“People who can enjoy themselves in a variety of situations have the ability to screen out stimulation and to focus only on what they decide is relevant for the moment.” (87)

“The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them – goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous. The second is centering, or the children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into ago do college or obtaining a well-paying job. Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules – as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defenses, and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.” (88)

“When adversity threatens to paralyze us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction in which to invest psychic energy, a direction that lies outside the reach of external forces. When every aspiration is frustrated, a person still must seek a meaningful goal around which to organize the self. Then, even though that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free.” (92)

“What we found was that when people were pursuing leisure activities that were expensive in terms of the outside resources required – activities that demanded expensive equipment, or electricity, or other forms of energy measured in BTUs, such as power boating, driving, or watching television – they were significantly less happy than when involved in inexpensive leisure. People were happiest when they were just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby; all of these activities require few material resources, but they demand a relatively high investment of psychic energy.” (99)

“Peasant women in Eastern Europe were not judged to be ready for marriage unless they had learned to cook a different soup for each day of the year.” (114)

“Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness – a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.” (119)

“It is a common fate of many human institutions to begin as a response to some universal problem until, after many generations, the problems peculiar to the institutions themselves will take precedence over the original goal.” (138)

“If a person feels coerced to read a certain book, to follow a given course because that is supposed to be the way to do it, learning will go against the grain. But if the decision is to take that same route because of an inner feeling of rightness, the learning will be relatively effortless and enjoyable.” (139)

“Early hunter-gatherers in Africa and Australia spent only three to five hours each day on what we would call working – providing for food, shelter, clothing, and tools. They spent the rest of the day in conversation, resting, or dancing.” (143)

“The mystical heights of the Yu are not attained by some superhuman quantum jump, but simply by the gradual focusing of attention on the opportunities for action in one’s environment, which results in a perfection of skills that with time becomes so thoroughly automatic as to seem spontaneous and otherworldly.” (151)

“The performances of a great violinist or a great mathematician seem equally uncanny, even though they can be explained by the incremental honing of challenges and skills.” (151)

“The more a job inherently resembles a game – with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback – the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.” (152)

“The apathy of many of the people around us is not due to their being physically or mentally exhausted. The problem seems to lie more in the modern worker’s relation to his job, with the way he perceives his goals in relation to it.” (160)

“Instead of helping us reach our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else’s come true. The time channeled into such at ask is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life. Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, an effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence. So even though the momentary on-the-job experience may be positive, they tend to discount it, because it does not contribute to their own long-range goals.” (160)

“Whether a job has variety or not ultimately depends  more on a person’s approach to it than on actual working conditions.” (161)

“The quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.” (164)

“We also value privacy and often wish to be left alone. Yet it frequently turns out that as soon as we are, we begin to grow depressed.” (164)

“The worst moods are reported when one is alone and there is nothing that needs to be done.” (168)

“Worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family, and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, zap! The potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.” (169)

“The frequency of murder is much higher among family members than among unrelated people.” (177)

“If a person is unwilling to adjust personal goals when starting a relationship, then a lot of what subsequently happens in that relationship will produce disorder in the person’s consciousness, because novel patterns of interaction will conflict with old patterns of expectation.” (177)
“Unconditional acceptance is especially important to children. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child when he fails to measure up, the child’s natural playfulness will be gradually replaced by chronic anxiety.” (184)

“Early emotional security may well be one of the conditions that helps develop an autotelic personality in children.” (184)

“Many men wake up to the fact that the family, like any other joint enterprise, needs constant investments of psychic energy to assure its existence.” (185)

“Individuals who survived severe physical ordeals-polar explorers wandering alone in the Arctic, concentration camp inmates-one common attitude shared by such people was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their hands.” (203)

“They are not self centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.” (203)

“People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings.” (204)

“Achieving this unity with one’s surroundings is not only an important component of enjoyable flow experiences but is also a central mechanism by which adversity is conquered.” (205)

“Transformations require that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities.” (207)

“If the artist holds on to a preconceived notion of what the painting should look like, without responding to the possibilities suggested by the forms developing before her, the painting is likely to be trite.” (208)

“The “autotelic self” is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony.” (209)

“Without constant attention to feedback I would soon become detached from the system of action, cease to develop skills, and become less effective.” (210)

“Even the most highly respected physicist, artist, or politician becomes a hollow bore and cease to enjoy life if all he can interested himself in is his limited role in the universe.” (212)

“Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy.” (213)

“If we enjoyed work and friendships, and faced every challenge as an opportunity to develop new skills, we would be getting rewards out of living that are outside the realm of ordinary life. Yet even this would not be enough to assure us of optimal experience. As long as enjoyment follows piecemeal from activities not linked to one another in a meaningful way, one is still vulnerable to the vagaries of chaos.” (214)

“Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience.” (218)

“Authentic projects describe the theme of a person who realizes that choices are free, and makes a personal decision based on a rational evaluation of his experience. It does not matter what the choice is, as long as it is an expression of what the person genuinely feels and believes. Inauthentic projects are those a person chooses because everybody else is doing, and therefore there is no alternative. Authentic projects tend to be intrinsically motivated, chosen for what they are worth in themselves; inauthentic ones are motivated by external forces.” (231)

“To find purpose in suffering one must interpret it as a possible challenge.” (233)

“Antonio was so sickly as a child that for years his mother is said to have dressed him in his best clothes every evening and laid him out to sleep in a coffin, expecting him to be dead by morning.” (234)

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