The wonderful things in life are the things you do, not the things you have.
― Reinhold Messner
Years ago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (hereafter: MC) developed the concept of flow to describe a particular state of mind (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In a state of flow, a person is engaged in a challenging task, working away, making progress, while being fully absorbed. Activity and lack of self-consciousness are the key elements of flow. MC broke the concept down further, proposing 8 necessary and jointly sufficient criteria and features. Flow is when a person  is engaged in a doable task,  is able to focus,  has a clear goal,  receives immediate feedback,  moves without worrying,  has a sense of control,  has suspended the sense of self, and  has temporarily lost a sense of time. This is a lot, and one wonders if experiences of flow are rare if so many conditions must be met.
Indeed, full-fledged experiences of flow must be rare. MC’s theory is a theory of expertise. Theories of expertise became powerful and popular after Chase and Simon’s (1973) ground-breaking studies of chess masters. Expert players are fully absorbed in their task and their massive experience allows them to “see” patterns and moves. Their expertise has shaped their perception and perception is highly automatic. The experts still have to do some hard thinking, but this work is done mainly in order to double-check if their initial perceptions are correct. The psychology of experts has been studied in many domains other than chess (e.g., physicians or musicians; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). What the experts have in common is that they operate actively in a rather well-defined and often narrow domain, and they receive frequent feedback of high quality. The experience of expertise looks very much like flow.
And the experience of flow very much looks like expertise, or at least the movement toward expertise. A popular graphic [the original "flow chart" if you will] shows challenge (task difficulty) on the x-axis and skill on the y-axis. The area of flow is depicted as a zone around the identity line. Above it there is boredom – where the challenge is insufficient for the available skill – and below it are stress and anxiety – where the challenge outpaces the skill. Flow then is also a theory of learning, kind of like Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978).
How did the theory of flow become a theory of happiness? Few claim that experts are happy. Experts may be respected and perhaps wealthy. But happy? If flow is related to expertise and if expertise is not (or only weakly) related to happiness, why would flow be related to happiness?
MC himself seems not too happy with the idea that his theory of flow has been taken to be a theory of happiness. Yet, there are points of contact. MC reports that the loss of self-consciousness is critical for the experience of flow. This means that while a person is in a state of flow (e.g., on the dance floor performing an intricate move), this person cannot be asked and cannot report on her state of mind. MC is among the pioneers of the Experience Sampling Method, which opens windows into people’s states as they occur, but the state of flow, by definition, does not allow it. Reports of what it feels like are retrospective. Some people may not be able to say anything at all about how they felt while in flow; all they know is that they are feeling terrific now, when looking back at what they have so expertly accomplished. If so, flow is not a component of happiness, but rather a cause of it.
Yet, it is difficult to dismiss flow as part of the happiness story. One way to see flow in terms of happiness is to place it in the tradition of the Stoics, who taught that happiness is found in the active engagement with the world. Nietzsche and Russell had similar ideas.
At the limit, flow flirts with the fanatical and the obsessive. Reinhold Messner (shown in image at top) is the greatest mountaineer of all time. He climbed Mt. Everest without bringing oxygen, and then he did it again, among many other feats. I suspect that he sought and found flow. But he paid a price. He lost toes to frostbite and we can only speculate about other opportunity costs. Perhaps it is best to be fanatical in moderation.
MC argues persuasively that the benefits of flow outweigh the risks. For one, flow does not only tranquilize the ego, it thereby also avoids the happiness-reducing effects of habituation, invidious social comparisons, and unrealistic expectations. “The rewards of flow,” MC writes, “are open-ended and inexhaustible” (1999, p. 826). Perhaps most importantly, flow keeps the mind firmly on task and thereby neutralizes any instrumental or material mindset. An engineer in a flow state is consumed by the solvable problem she faces, not by thoughts of the money the patent might bring, or, worse yet, thoughts of fame.
Again, however, there is a hint of a dark side. If my interpretation of flow as a special case of the experience of expertise is correct, the activities yielding flow are mostly activities involving some kind of work. It is a 500-year old protestant tradition to sanctify work (Weber, 2002). Doing the work and becoming better and more efficient at it is seen as a sign of moral goodness. The theory of flow provides an additional psychological justification for the idea that to grow with challenging work is a highly desirable thing.
Now there are innumerable opportunities to seek flow. The list of activities we can engage in and build skills and become experts is virtually endless. What did the world look like to our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors, however? Did they find flow? Were they happy? They lived before the protestant era, and the data suggest that what we call work today made up but a small part of their daily lives. I imagine that hunting and communal rituals can induce flow. But perhaps there was something else, something less strenuous, something like a basic joy of being.
After I gave a lecture on flow pretty much along the lines described in this post, one the graduate teaching assistants came up to me and asked: "How do you define flow?" Like - hello!
Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55-81.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54, 821-827.
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Weber, M (2002). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company. Original published in German in 1904/05.