Study Guide


by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


The pursuit of happiness?

Happiness, as the signers of the Declaration of Independence knew, is crucial. From the happiness of pure survival under adverse conditions, via the strange happiness of those who take pleasure in their pains, to the hard-won happiness of those whose skilled labors achieve fruition, the pursuit of happiness in some form or another occupies the human race. If money and power seem to promise happiness, money and power will be sought after. If; as the bumper stickers proclaim, happiness is “being a grandmother” or “being Irish,” there will be devoted grandmothers and Irishmen. If meditation brings peace of mind, people will meditate. Can happiness, however, really be pursued?

It is an important part of the argument of this book that the direct, head-on search for happiness brings at best shallow and evanescent pleasures; that real happiness is not something to pursue, but something that will find one if one is busy about one’s life. Happiness, in words that the author quotes from Victor Frankl, “must ensue as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than one- self.”

Even so, it is refreshing to find a major psychologist (in this case a professor and former chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago) looking into the question of happiness at all. As Abraham Maslow observed before him, psychologists have a tendency to study the dysfunctional aspects of human life, and spend relatively little time on those who make a success out of the business of living.

Csikszentmihalyi apparently shares with many practitioners of the “soft sciences” the feeling that science is the language in which truths must be expressed, if they are to be communicated effectively. He has been studying human happiness and optimal states for more than twenty-five years, and has published other, more strictly scientific accounts of his work. His avowed purpose in the present book is “to explore this very ancient question: When do people feel most happy?”

The question arises for Csikszentmihalyi because of his own experience, the discovery in his own life that “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.” At once, we learn something about happiness. Csikszentmihalyi, it would seem, is not satisfied with his insight into happiness. It leaves him not so much unhappy as inquisitive. How should one interpret events? How prepare for, cultivate, and defend happiness?

The book offers no recipe for happiness, since “a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.” This is not, and cannot be, a self-help book. It does, however, claim to “use some of the tools of modern psychology” to investigate happiness, and to offer scientific evidence about what makes people happy.

Here the fun begins. If happiness cannot be grasped, what can one usefully say about it, and how should one best say it?

Csikszentmihalyi knows from his own experience that there is a state of being associated with happiness, a state in which one is fully and alertly focused on a particular task, seemingly without distractions, and in which things unfold with astonishing precision and grace. It is this state of flow, rather than “happiness” itself which Csikszentmihalyi investigates in the present work.

Observing flow first in himself, he discovered that it occurred when the challenge of a situation was well-matched by the skills that were brought to bear on it. He learned that, in situations in which the skills available were no match for the challenge, anxiety and paralysis were the result, while in situations in which the challenge did not match up to the skills available, the result was boredom. He learned that in flow states, self-consciousness was typically absent, and that the sense of subjective time was often expanded. And he was surprised to find out that flow happened most frequently not in relaxed moments, but when body and mind were stretched to their limits.

From this discovery about himself Csikszentmihalyi went on to conduct extensive interviews, first with artists, athletes, chess masters, surgeons, and other people who seemed to spend their time doing what they most loved and doing it superbly, and then with a wider range of respondents including Italian farmers, Chicago assembly-line workers, older Korean women, Navaho shepherds, and Tokyo teenagers.

He tells his readers that he is going to talk science—but the science in question turns out to refer to the results of these interviews. What he in fact offers is a theory of flow (briefly stated above), some delightful facts and ideas each one of which is capable of sparking interesting lines of thought and drawn from a dozen other disciplines, some homespun philosophy that happens to...

(The entire section is 2088 words.)