Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Conditions of the flow state

We have seen how people describe the universal characteristics of optimal experience: a sense that the person's skills are adequate to the challenge being faced, in a purposeful, law-bound system of action that will provide clear clues as to how well the person performs. Concentration is so intense that there is no longer attention to think about irrelevant things, or to ponder other matters. The sense of ego disappears and the sense of time is distorted. An action that produces such experiences is so satisfying that they are willing to do it for the action itself, with little concern about what they will gain from it, even if the action is difficult or dangerous.

But how do such experiences play out? Sometimes the flow state can appear randomly, thanks to a lucky coincidence of internal and external conditions. For example, maybe a group of friends have dinner together and someone brings up a topic that involves everyone in the conversation. One by one they started joking and telling stories, soon everyone was happy and feeling good about the others. While such events may occur spontaneously, it is more likely that the flow state will be generated from a structured action, or from an individual's capacity to give rise to flow, or both.

Why is playing a game fun, when the things that we have to do every day, like working or hanging around at home, often make us feel bored? And, why can one person indulge in a concentration camp, while another is destitute while vacationing at a luxury resort? Answering these questions will make it easier for you to understand how experiences can be shaped to improve your quality of life. This chapter will explore the special activities that are capable of creating optimal experiences and personal characteristics that help people get into a state of flow easily.


In describing the optimal experience in this book, we gave examples of activities such as composing, climbing, dancing, rowing, playing chess, and so on. What makes these activities lead to a state of flow, is that they are designed to make the optimal experience easier to achieve. They have laws that require learning skills, they set goals, they give feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and exhaustion of the mind by creating action as detached from the so-called "supreme reality" of everyday life as possible. For example, in each sport, participants wear eye-catching uniforms and enter special areas that temporarily separate them from ordinary people. During the event, competitors and spectators stop acting on conventional thinking and instead focus on the unique reality of the game.

Such flow activities have the essential function of providing enjoyable experiences. Drama, art, flashy performances, ceremonies and sports are a few good examples. Thanks to the way they are structured, they help participants and audiences achieve a heightened state of mental euphoria.

Roger Caillois, a French anthropologist-psychologist, has divided the games of the world (the word "game" is used with the broadest semantics to encompass all forms of leisure activity) into four explicit categories, depending on the type of experience they provide. Agon (polemic) includes games that are competitive in nature, like most sports and events that belong to sports; Alea (chance) is a category that includes all games of chance, from dice to bingo; Ilinx, also known as vertigo (feeling of imbalance) was the name he gave to activities that alter consciousness by creating disturbances in common perception, such as playing the ferris wheel or skydiving; And mimicry is a group of activities in which alternative realities are created, such as dance, theater and art in general.

With this classification, it can be said that games offer the opportunity to rise above the limits of conventional experience in four different ways. In polemic (agon) games, players must improve their skills to cope with the challenges presented by their opponents' skills. The origin of the word "compete" is from the Latin word con petire, meaning "to search together". What each person seeks is the realization of his or her own potential, and this task becomes easier when others force us to perform at our best. Naturally, competition only improves the experience when much attention is placed on the activity itself. If extrinsic goals — such as beating the competition, impressing an audience, or landing a high-value professional contract — are what the person cares about, the competition is more of a distraction than an impulse to focus consciously on what's going on.

Games of chance (alea) are more interesting because they give us the illusion of controlling the unpredictable future. Native Americans shuffled marked buffalo ribs to anticipate the outcome of their next hunt, the Chinese interpreted the shape in which the wooden cards fell, and the Ashanti tribe of eastern Africa read the future through how their sacrificial chickens died. Prophecy is a common feature of culture, an attempt to go beyond the constraints of the present and get a glimpse of what will happen. Games of chance evoke the same needs. Buffalo ribs became dice games, the wooden sticks of fortune telling became card games, and prophetic rituals became gambling—a mundane activity in which people try to be wiser than others or try to triumph over fate.

The feeling of losing balance (vertigo) is the most direct way to change consciousness. Children who love the stunned twirling and spinning dance of Muslims in the Middle East enter a trance through the same methods. Any activity that transforms the way we perceive reality is enjoyable and one fact that explains the attraction of a variety of "consciousness-expanding" stimulants, from magic mushrooms to alcohol to the "Pandora's box of modern times," hallucinogenic chemicals. But consciousness cannot be extended; All we can do is shuffle its contents, which will give us the feeling that it has been expanded in some way. However, the price of most forced transformations is that we lose control of the very part of consciousness that we should be expanding.

Mimicry makes us feel like we are superior to our true self through delusions, expectations, and cover-ups. Our ancestors, when wearing masks of gods and dancing, felt a strong oneness with the power to rule the universe. By dressing up as a deer, the native Yaqui Indian dancer feels he and the spirit of the animal he is incarnating as one. The singer harmonized her voice in harmony with the choir, feeling a shiver run down her spine as she felt herself become one with the beautiful sound she helped create. A little girl playing with her doll and her brother playing a cowboy also expands the limits of their usual experience, so that they temporarily become someone else, stronger — while also helping them understand the role of gendered adults in their society.

In our research, we've found that every flow activity, whether it involves competition, chance, or any other form of experience, often has this thing in common: It gives us a sense of discovery, a sense of creativity of immersing a person in a new reality. It motivates the person to a higher level of performance and leads to a state of consciousness previously unexpected. In short, it transforms the ego by making the ego more complex. And in this maturity of the ego contains the key to flow activities.


However, it is important not to fall into the rigid fallacy and assume that, just because a person is objectively involved with a flow activity, she necessarily has a proper experience. Not only are the "real" challenges that appear contextually significant, but so are those perceived by participants. It's not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel, it's the skills we think we have that make it happen. He may respond to the challenge of climbing a mountaintop but remain indifferent to the opportunity to learn music; Others may jump at the opportunity to learn music and ignore the mountain. How we feel at a given moment of a flow activity is strongly influenced by objective conditions; But consciousness remains free to follow its own assessment of what is happening. The rules of games are aimed at directing mental energy in models of enjoyment, but whether they do so or not is ultimately up to us. A professional athlete can "play" football without any element of the flow state appearing: he may get bored, awkward, only care about the value of the contract rather than the game itself. And the opposite is even more likely—that a person will indulge in activities that were originally aimed at other purposes. For many, activities such as working or raising children provide more state of flow than playing a game or drawing a picture, because these individuals have learned to see opportunities in such mundane things while others do not.

Throughout human evolution, each culture has developed activities designed primarily to improve the quality of experience. Even the least technologically advanced societies have several forms of art, music, dancing, and a variety of games that children and adults alike can play. There are Aboriginal people in New Guinea who spend more time in the forest looking for colorful feathers to decorate their religious ritual dances than time foraging. And this is not an uncommon example, because art, drama and ritual take up more time and energy than work, in most cultures.

While these activities may simultaneously serve other purposes, the reality is that they provide enjoyment is the main reason they exist. Humans began decorating caves at least thirty thousand years ago. The paintings clearly have religious and practical implications. However, it is also possible that the main reason for the existence of art in the Paleolithic was the same as it is now—that is, it was the source of a state of flow for both painters and viewers.

In fact, currents and religion have been intimately linked since the earliest times. Many of humanity's optimal experiences have taken place in the context of religious rituals. Not only art but also drama, music, and dance have their roots in what we now call "religious" environments; These are activities that aim to connect people with supernatural entities and powers. The same is true for games. One of the earliest ball games, a form of basketball, was played by the Mayans, as part of religious celebrations, and so were the early Olympic games. This connection is not surprising, because what we call true religion are the oldest and most ambitious attempts to create order in consciousness. For that reason, it is perfectly reasonable to say that religious rituals would be an abundant source of enjoyment.

In modern times, art, drama and life in general have lost their supernatural anchors. The cosmic order that in the past helped illuminate and give meaning to human history has broken into fragments. Many ideologies now compete to provide the best explanation for how we behave: the law of supply and demand and the theory of the "invisible hand" that manipulates the free market seeks to explain our rational economic choices; the law of class conflict that exists beneath historical materialism that attempts to explain our irrational political actions; The genetic competition that social biology relies on will explain why we help some people but destroy others; The Law of Action of behaviorism offers an explanation of how we learn to repeat actions that bring pleasure, even if we don't realize them. These are some of the modern "religions" that are deeply rooted in the social sciences. None of these — with the distinct exception of historical materialism, essentially a waning faith — require popular support and none inspire the aesthetic visions or interesting rituals that previous models of cosmic order have spawned.

When modern flow activities are secularized, they are incapable of connecting the performer with the powerful systems of meaning that those offered by the Olympics or Mayan ball games. Often, their content is pure hedonism: we expect them to improve how we feel, both mentally and physically, but we don't expect them to associate us with the divine. However, our steps to improve the quality of experiences are important for the entire culture. It has long been recognized that the productive activities of a society are a useful way of describing its characteristics: hence the means hunter-gatherer, nomadic, agricultural and technological societies. But because flow activities are freely selected and intimately related to the source of what ultimately matters, they are perhaps more accurate indicators of who we are.


A core element of America's experiment with democracy is to make the pursuit of happiness a conscious political goal — indeed a responsibility of government. Although the Declaration of Independence may be the first official political document to articulate this goal explicitly, it is true that no social system will ever survive unless its people have little hope that the government will help them achieve happiness. Naturally, there are many cultures of oppression that the masses are willing to endure despite extremely bad rulers. If pyramid-building slaves rarely rebelled, it was because compared to the alternatives they observed, laboring as slaves to the autocratic Pharaoh gave them a somewhat more hopeful future.

For several generations, social scientists have vehemently refused to make valuable judgments about cultures. Any comparison that is not seriously substantiated risks being interpreted as insulting. It would be inappropriate to say that the habits, beliefs, or institutions of one culture are, in some respects, better than another. This is "cultural relativism," a position that anthropologists adopted at the turn of the century, as a reaction to the overly short-sighted and positional assumptions of the Victorian colonial era, when Western industrialized nations viewed them as the pinnacle of evolution. better than technologically underdeveloped cultures in every respect. This foolish confidence of our ascendancy is long gone. We may still hate if an Arab drives a truck full of explosives into an embassy, blowing himself up in the process of a suicide bombing, but we can no longer feel more morally superior in condemning his faith to a special place in heaven reserved for suicide warriors. We must accept that our moral norms simply no longer circulate outside of our culture. According to this new dogma, using a set of values to judge others is unacceptable. And since each cross-assessment of cultures necessarily includes at least one set of values that do not belong to one of the cultures being evaluated, the comparison is very likely to be rejected.

However, if we assume that the desire for optimal experience is the primary goal of every person, then the difficulty of explanation aroused by cultural relativism becomes less intense. Each social system can then be evaluated in terms of how much mental entropy it produces, predicting that chaos has nothing to do with the ideal order of one or the other belief systems, but with the goals of its members. The starting point would be to claim that one society is "better" than another, if large numbers of people in that society have access to experiences that align with their goals. A second essential criterion will detail that these experiences should lead to the development of the ego on an individual level, by allowing as many people as possible to develop complex skills.

It seems pretty clear that cultures are considered different based on the degree of "pursuit of happiness" they can produce. The quality of life in some societies, at some historical periods, is clearly better than in others. Near the end of the eighteenth century, ordinary English men must have fared far worse than before, or would be so again a hundred years later. Evidence suggests that the industrial revolution not only shortened people's lifespans by several generations but also made them more evil and violent. It is hard to imagine that weavers swallowed up by "Satanic factories" from the age of five, who had to work seventy hours a week or more until they died of exhaustion, could feel that what they get from life is what they want, regardless of the values and beliefs they share.

To take another example, the culture of the people living on Dobu23, described by anthropologist Reo Fortune, is one that promotes the constant fear of magic, distrust even among closest relatives, and hatred. Just going to the bathroom was a big deal, as it included them entering the bush forest, where it was thought they would be attacked by dark magic when they were alone in the woods. Dobu people don't seem to "like" these attributes in their day-to-day experiences, but they don't recognize alternatives. They are trapped in the web of beliefs and practices that have evolved over time and that have made it extremely difficult for them to experience spiritual harmony. Many ethnographic records suggest that mental entropy was more common in prehistoric cultures than the myth of the "noble wild" man.

The Iks of Uganda, who are unable to cope with an environment so ruined that they no longer provide enough food for them to survive, have institutionalized selfishness beyond even capitalism's wildest dreams. The Yonomamo people of Venezuela, like other warrior tribes, revere violence more than our military superpowers, and they find that there is nothing as fun as a sudden bloody attack on a neighboring village. Funny and smiling are almost two words unknown in the Nigerian tribe, which is steeped in the magic and intrigues that Laura Bohannan has studied.

There is no evidence to suggest that any of these cultures choose selfishness, violence, or fear. Their behavior doesn't make them any happier; rather, on the contrary, it causes suffering. The beliefs and habits that prevent such happiness are neither necessary nor inevitable; They develop by chance, as a result of random reactions to random conditions. But once they become part of the norms and habits that belong to a culture, one assumes that everything must be so; And they begin to believe that they have no other options.

Fortunately, there are also many examples of cultures that by both luck and foresight, humans have succeeded in creating a context in which a state of flow is relatively easy to achieve. For example, the pygmy dwarves of the Ituri forest, described by Colin Turnbull as living in harmony with others and with their environment, filled their lives with useful and challenging activities. When not hunting or tending to their village, they sing, dance, play musical instruments, or tell each other stories. As in many so-called "primitive" cultures, every adult in this pygmy society is expected to be something of an actor, singer, artist, historian, as well as a skilled worker. Their culture will not be valued in terms of material achievement, but in terms of providing optimal experiences, their way of life seems to be extremely successful.

Another good example of how a culture can piece together a flow state in its lifestyle is given by a Canadian ethnographer, Richard Kool, describing one of British Columbia's Indian tribes:

The Shushwap region was and is considered by the Indians to be a rich land: rich in salmon and game, rich in underground food sources such as bulbous plants and roots – a rich land. In this region, people will live in permanent villages and extract necessary resources from the surrounding environment. They possess sophisticated techniques to use resources from the environment very efficiently and believe that their lives are full and prosperous. But elders also say there have been times when the world has become too predictable and challenges have begun to cease to exist in life. Without challenges, life has no meaning.

So the elders, with their wisdom, decided that the whole village should move, and these migrations occurred every twenty-five to thirty years. The entire population will move to another area of the Shushwa region, where they will find new challenges. There are streams to explore, new trails to explore, new areas, where there are countless forests of yellow flowers. Now life will regain its meaning and be more worth living. People will feel young and well. Incidentally, it also helped the resources that had previously been exploited in the area recover after years of harvesting.

Another interesting example is the Isé Shinto Palace located in the city of Isé, south of Kyoto, Japan. The Isé Palace was built about 1500 years ago, on one of two adjacent pieces of forest. Every twenty years, it is removed from the forest in which it is located and rebuilt on the adjacent piece of forest. As of 1973, it has been rebuilt sixteen times. (During the conflict between rival emperors in the fourteenth century, this practice was temporarily interrupted.)

The strategy adopted by the aborigines of Shushwap and the monks of the Isé Divine Palace is similar to the strategy that some politicians can only dream of. For example, both Thomas Jefferson and Mao Zedong believed that each generation needed to make its own revolution in order for its members to participate in the political system that governed their lives. In fact, only a few cultures have ever achieved a match between people's spiritual needs and the choices available to them. Most fail to achieve their goals, either because they make survival too hard a task, or because they close themselves into rigid patterns that stifle the opportunities for action of each successive generation.

Cultures are defensive structures against chaos, created to minimize the impact of randomness on experience. They are adaptive responses, like feathers to birds and cilia to mammals. Cultures set standards, develop goals, build trust that help us handle life's challenges. To do so, they must exclude goals and beliefs that cancel each other out and thus limit their possibilities; But directing attention to this limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless action within self-created boundaries.

It is in this aspect that these games offer a convincing similarity to cultures. Both have more or less binding goals and rules for people to become engaged in a process and act with minimal suspicion and distraction. The difference mainly lies in scale. Cultures cover everything: they shape how a person should be born, how one should grow, marry, have children, and even live and die. The games will fill the transition time in the cultural scenario. They increase action and focus during "spare time" when cultural guidelines offer too little hint and attention from a person who risks wandering into the realm of uncharted chaos.

When a culture succeeds in developing a set of goals and rules that are so persuasive and relevant to the skills of its people that its members may experience a state of flow with unusual intensity and frequency, then the similarities between games and cultures become even more. In such a case, we can say that the entire culture has become a "big game". Some ancient civilizations may have succeeded in reaching this state. The Athenians, the Romans shaped their actions with virtus, the Chinese sages or the Brahmins Indians lived their entire lives in complex attitudes and probably found the same interest in the challenging harmony of their own actions as they would have from a long dance. The city of Athens, Roman rule, China's well-founded bureaucracy and India's mature spiritual order succeeded and perpetuated patterns of how a culture could enhance a state of flow — at least for those fortunate enough to be in important roles.

A culture that enhances flow states is not necessarily "good" in every moral sense. The laws of Sparta may seem superfluously cruel from the perspective of twentieth-century vantage, yet they are perfectly seen as successful in motivating those who conform to them. The joy of battle and the killing that excited the nomadic Tartar tribes or Turkish soldiers is already legendary. It is certainly true that for the vast majority of Europeans, who were bewildered by the economic and cultural shocks of the 1920s, the Fascist regime and ideology devised a compelling game plan. It sets simple goals, provides clear feedback, and allows for a reattachment to life that many people perceive as relief from worries and frustrations.

Similarly, while flow state is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee virtue in those who experience it. If everything else is equal, then a culture that provides a flow experience can be seen as "better" than one that doesn't. But when a group of people cling to goals and rules that increase the joy of life, there is always the possibility that it will happen to harm others. The Athenian state of flow provided by the slaves who created their wealth, as well as the elegant way of life on Southern American plantations that were based on the labor of migrant slaves.

We are still far from being able to accurately measure how many optimal experiences different cultures can create. According to a large-scale Gallup survey conducted in 1976, 40 North Americans said they were "very happy," compared with 20 percent for Europeans, 18 percent for Africans and only 7 percent for those in the Far East. On the other hand, another survey conducted just two years ago, indicated that the personal happiness index of American citizens is only comparable to that of Cubans or Egyptians, who have five and more than ten times less GNP per capita than Americans, respectively. West Germans and Nigerians gave comparable happiness indexes, despite a difference of more than fifteen times in the GNP per capita. So far, these inconsistencies only prove that the tools for measuring our optimal experience are still very rudimentary. And the existence of differences seems indisputable.

Despite the ambivalent findings, large-scale surveys agree that citizens of wealthier, better-educated countries led by more stable governments have higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands are the happiest countries and the United States, despite its high rates of divorce, alcoholism, crime and addiction, is not too far behind. This is not surprising considering the amount of time and resources we devote to activities whose purpose is to create fun. The average American adult works only about thirty hours a week (and spends an extra ten hours doing things unrelated to their job at work, like daydreaming or gossiping with close colleagues). They spend less time—twenty hours a week—on leisurely activities: seven hours watching television, three hours reading, two hours on more active things like walking, playing music, or bowling, and the remaining seven hours on social activities like partying, etc. Watch a movie, or entertain family and friends. Fifty to sixty hours of sleepless time, Americans spend on maintenance activities such as eating, commuting from home to work and vice versa, shopping, cooking, washing, and repairing furniture; or free to do nothing, just sit alone and look into the void.

Although the average American has a lot of free time and access to leisure activities, they don't experience flow very often. Potential does not mean that reality and quantity cannot be turned into quality. For example, watching television, the most frequently chosen leisure activity in America today, very rarely leads to conditions for flow. In fact, working people experience flow — sheer focus, high and proportionate challenges and skills, feelings of control and satisfaction — often about four times more than when they watched television for their respective periods of time.

One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is that the availability of this enormous idle time somehow fails to turn into enjoyment. Compared to humans who lived a few generations ago, we have countless more wonderful opportunities to spend good times but nothing that proves that we truly enjoy life more than our ancestors. Opportunities alone are not enough. We also need the skills to exploit opportunities. And we need to know how to control our consciousness — a skill that most people haven't learned to cultivate. Despite being surrounded by pastime choices and a full range of amazingly innovative entertainment devices, most of us continue to live in vague boredom and frustration.

This truth brings us to the second condition that influences whether optimal experiences occur: the ability to restructure an individual's consciousness to create flow experiences. Some people enjoy life no matter where they are, while others feel depressed even in the face of the most brilliant prospects. Therefore, in addition to considering external conditions, or the structures of flow activities, we also need to consider the internal conditions that enable flow to occur.


It's not easy to turn a casual experience into a flow experience, but most people can improve their ability to do so. While the rest of this book will continue to explore the phenomenon of optimal experience, which, in other words, will help readers become more familiar with it, we will now discuss another issue: Does everyone have the same potential to manipulate consciousness; And if not, then what helps us distinguish those who easily do it and those who can't?

Some individuals may not be innately able to experience flow. Psychiatrists describe patients with schizophrenia as suffering from anhedonia, which theoretically means "lack of pleasure." This syndrome expresses its association with "overexposure of stimuli", referring to the fact that people with schizophrenia are forced to pay attention to extraneous stimuli in order to process information whether they want it or not. The tragedy of not being able to keep everything in or out of consciousness of a schizophrenia patient is vividly described by patients like this: "Things keep coming to me now and I can't control them. I don't seem to have the same say to everything anymore. There were times when I couldn't even control what I thought." Or: "Things are moving so fast. I no longer understood them well and I lost direction. I'm involved in everything at once and that's why I'm not really involved in anything."

Unable to concentrate, participate in everything in a disorganized way, it is not surprising that patients with this condition cannot live happily. But what caused the overabundance of stimuli in the first place?

Part of the answer must have to do with congenital genetic causes. Some people are simply less able to focus their mental energy than others. Among school-age children, many learning disabilities have been classified under the heading of "attention disorders," because one thing they all have in common is a lack of attention control. Although attention disorders are likely dependent on chemical imbalances, it is also highly likely that the quality of childhood experiences will either exacerbate or defuse their course. From our perspective, it is important to recognize that attention disorders not only interfere with learning but also exclude the possibility of experiencing flow. When a person cannot control mental energy, studying or truly enjoying something is impossible.

A milder obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self-consciousness. A person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive him, who is always afraid of making a bad impression or doing something inappropriate, is also excluded from enjoyment, permanently. And so do those who are overly self-centered. A self-centered individual often does not know himself, but instead evaluates each piece of information only in terms of how it relates to his or her aspirations. For such people, everything is worthless. A flower is not worth looking back on unless it is usable; A person, whether male or female, cannot increase the interests of others is not worth paying extra attention to. Consciousness is structured as a whole in terms of its own purposes and nothing is allowed to exist in it that is incompatible with those purposes.

Although a self-conscious person is different from a self-centered person in many ways, none of them are capable of controlling the mental energy to enter into the flow experience with ease. Both lack the fluidity required of attention to engage with self-meaningful activities; Too much mental energy envelops the ego and free attention is rigidly directed by the needs of the ego. Under these conditions, it is difficult to focus on inner goals, to immerse yourself in an activity that has no reward but the interaction itself.

Attention disorders and over-manipulation prevent flow because mental energy is too mobile and erratic. Excessive self-consciousness or self-centeredness blocks the flow for the opposite reason: Attention is too rigid and tight. Extremes also do not allow people to control attention. Those who are at these extreme points are unable to live happily, have difficulty learning, and lose opportunities for ego growth. The paradox is that a self-centered self cannot become more complicated, because all the mental energy it uses at its disposal is invested in achieving its current goals rather than learning new ones.

The obstacles preventing the flow considered so far are within the individual himself. But there are also many environmental obstacles that have great power for enjoyment. Some of these are natural, some have social causes. For instance, it is believed that people living in the extremely harsh conditions of the Arctic, or in the Kalahari Desert, have few opportunities to enjoy life. But even the harshest natural conditions can't eliminate the flow entirely. Eskimos in desolate lands, devoid of their living conditions, learned to sing, dance, joke, carve beautiful things and write up an elaborate mythology to create order and meaning for their experiences. It is possible that people living in the land of snow and sand, who cannot create joy for their lives, will eventually give up and die. But the truth is that several survival reality TV shows have shown that nature itself cannot stop the flow from happening.

Social conditions that block the flow may be harder to overcome. One of the consequences of slavery, oppression, exploitation and destruction of cultural values is the suppression of enjoyment. When the (now extinct) natives of the Caribbean islands were forced to work on Spanish plantations, their lives became so painful and meaningless that they lost their desire to live and even stopped reproducing. It is likely that many cultures have disappeared in the same way, because they can no longer create experiences that are indulgent.

There are two terms that describe the state of sociopathy that apply to both those conditions that hinder the experience of flow: Anomie (disorganization) and Alienation (alienation). Anomie — literally "lack of rules" — is the name French sociologist Emile Durkheim gave to a social state where norms of behavior become confused. When what is allowed and what is not allowed is no longer clear, when there is no longer certainty which community views are valuable, then behavior becomes erratic and meaningless. People who depend on social rules to bring order to their consciousness become anxious. Disorganization can increase when the economy collapses, or when one culture is destroyed by another, but they can also come when prosperity increases rapidly, when the old values of thrift and hard work are no longer as relevant as they once were.

Alienation is the opposite in many ways: it is a condition in which people are forced by the social system to act in a way contrary to their goals. A worker who has to do the same meaningless task hundreds of times in front of an assembly line to feed himself and his family can become resentful. In some countries, one of the most frustrating sources of alienation is the compulsion to spend a lot of free time waiting in line for food, for clothing, for entertainment, or for endless bureaucracy. When a society is in a state of disorganization, the flow becomes more difficult because it is not clear what are the things worth investing mental energy in; When a society faces alienation, the problem will be that one cannot focus mental energy on what is clearly worth aspiring to.

It is interesting to note that two social obstacles to this flow, disorganization and alienation, functionally resemble two individual pathologies, attention disorder syndrome and self-centered syndrome. On both levels, individually and collectively, what prevents the flow state from taking place is precisely the fragmentation of the attention process (as when in disorganization and attention disorder syndrome), or their excessive rigidity (as when in a state of alienation and self-centeredness). On an individual level, disorganization corresponds to anxiety, while alienation corresponds to depression.


Just as some people are born with better muscle structure, it is likely that there are individuals who are born with a genetic superiority in controlling consciousness. Such people are likely to suffer from attention disorders and they may experience flow more easily.

Dr. Jean Hamilton's research on visual perception and cortical activation patterns reinforces this claim. One set of her evidence was based on a test in which subjects had to look at a hallucinogenic image (Necker's cube, or Escher-style illustration, which at times appeared to be rising above the plane of paper toward the viewer, But at another point it's like backing down that plane) and then "reversing" it perceptually—that is, looking at the image emerging from the paper as if it were backing away and then reversing again. Dr. Hamilton found that students who were confirmed to be less intrinsically motivated in daily life needs to adjust their eyes at more points to reverse the hallucinatory image, while students who found their lives to be more intrinsically rewarding needed fewer points of view. or even just a single point of view, to reverse the image.

These findings hypothesize that humans may disagree about the number of external cues they need to complete the same mental task. Individuals who require large amounts of external information to shape the presence of reality in consciousness may become highly dependent on the external environment in the use of their minds. They lack control over their thoughts, which will make it more difficult for them to enjoy the experience. In contrast, people who need only a few external signals to be able to reproduce the event in their consciousness are more independent of the external environment. They have attention flexibility, which allows them to restructure the experience more easily, and as a result, they frequently achieve more optimal experiences.

In another sequence of experiences, students who had and did not experience regular flow were asked to pay attention to flashes of light or to sounds in the lab. While the subjects participated in this attention task, their cortical activation in response to the stimulus was measured and averaged separately for each hearing and visual condition. (These results are called "evoked potentials.") Dr. Hamilton's research showed that only subjects who rarely experienced flow acted as predicted: when responding to a stimulus that was a ray of light, cortical activation increased significantly more than their baseline levels. The results from subjects who regularly reported experiencing flow were quite unexpected: activation decreased when they were focusing. Instead of requiring more effort, investing real attention seems to reduce mental effort. A method of measuring the detached behavior of attention has also confirmed that this group also behaved more properly in a task with sustained attention.

The most plausible explanation for this anomalous finding seems to be that the group that experienced more flow was able to reduce mental activity in every information channel except the one associated with the focus on light stimuli. This has hypothesized that people who can amuse themselves in a variety of circumstances have the ability to screen stimulation and focus only on what they deem appropriate at the present moment. While attention generally implies an added burden of information being processed beyond normal levels of effort, it is relatively easy for those who have learned to control their consciousness to focus their attention, because they can shut down all other mental processes. except for the relevant process. It is through this flexibility of attention, which contrasts sharply with the futile overexposure of schizophrenia, that can provide the neural foundation for self-purposed personality.

However, neurological evidence does not demonstrate that some individuals inherit genetic superiority in attention control and therefore do not have an advantage in flow experience. These findings can be explained in terms of learning rather than inheritance. The link between concentration and flow is already quite clear; And more in-depth research will be needed to know for sure which one produces which.


A neurological advantage in information processing may not be the only key to why some people happily wait at the bus stop while others get bored no matter how interesting their environment is. Early childhood influences are also most likely to be the determining factor in whether a person will easily experience flow.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the way a parent interacts with a child will have a lasting impact on the type of person a child will become when they grow up. For example, in one of our studies conducted at the University of Chicago, Kevin Rathunde observed that adolescents who have strong relationships with their parents are significantly happier, contented, and stronger in almost any life situation than children his age who don't have a relationship such a system. The family context that promotes an optimal experience can be described by five characteristics. The first characteristic is clarity: Adolescents feel they know what their parents expect from them — goals and feedback in family interactions are not ambiguous. The second is centering, or children's perception that their parents care more about what they do now, their specific feelings, and their experiences than they are with whether they get into a good college or find a good-paying job. Then there's the issue of choice: children feel they have many different possibilities for choice, including breaking the rules set by their parents — as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth distinct characteristic is commitment, or trust that allows children to feel comfortable enough to put aside their defensive shield and boldly participate in whatever interests them. And finally, there is the challenge, or the effort parents put into providing opportunities for action with increased complexity for their children.

The presence of these five conditions makes what are known as "purposeful family contexts in themselves" possible, because they provide an ideal training for enjoying life. The five characteristics clearly correspond to the dimensions of flow experience. Children who grow up in family situations that facilitate transparency of goals, feedback, a sense of control, focus on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation and challenge generally have a better chance of organizing their lives in such a way that the flow experience becomes possible.

In addition, families that provide a context of personal purpose maintain a sizable source of spiritual energy for family members, which in turn can increase joy for all. Kids who know what they can and can't do, kids who don't need to argue endlessly about rules or control, kids who don't have to worry about their parents' heavy expectations about their future's success, such kids are freed from so much attention demands that come from families. More chaotic than usual. They are free to develop their passion for activities that will expand their egos. In more disorderly families, much of the energy is spent on persistent negotiations and conflicts and is spent on children's efforts to protect their vague egos from being buried by the goals of others.

Not surprisingly, the difference between adolescents whose families give them a purposeful context and children whose families lack the stability when their children are gathered: children who come from a self-directed background are happy, stronger, cheerful and more satisfied than less fortunate children of the same age. The differences also show when these children learn on their own, or at school: at this point, optimal experiences are easier for children from self-serving families. It was only when the children were with friends that the differences disappeared: when they were with friends, both groups felt equally positive, regardless of whether their families were self-serving or not.

It is perhaps true that there are ways parents behave with their children from the earliest moments of their child's life that will make their ability to find joy easier, or more difficult. However, with this in mind, there are no long-term studies tracking causal relationships over time. Obviously, though, an abused child, or a child threatened with losing parental love—and unfortunately, we are aware of the increasing proportion of abused children in this culture—will be extremely anxious to keep their sense of self from being separated to have some energy left to pursue intrinsic rewards. Instead of seeking the complexity of indulgence, a child who is treated badly is likely to grow up into an adult that will be content with getting as much pleasure as possible from life.


Traits that demonstrate a purposeful personality are clearly revealed by people who can enjoy situations that many would normally find unbearable. Like getting lost in Antarctica or being confined in the middle of a prison, some individuals succeed in transforming their miserable conditions into a manageable and even enjoyable struggle, while most others will not stand the test. Richard Logan, who has studied the notes of many people in difficult circumstances, concludes that they have survived by looking for avenues to turn bleak objective conditions into controllable subjective experiences. They follow the blueprint of flow operations. First, they pay close attention to the smallest details of their circumstances, discovering in them potential opportunities for action in accordance with their abilities, given the circumstances. They then set goals appropriate to their critical situation and closely monitor the process through the feedback they receive. Whenever they reach their goal, they increase their stakes, continuing to pose more complex challenges for themselves.

Christopher Burney, a prisoner of the Nazi regime who was held in solitary confinement for an extended period during World War II, gives a good example of this process:

If the scope of the experience is suddenly limited and we are left with little food to feed our thoughts or feelings, we tend to pick a few pre-existing objects and ask a series of questions, often quite stupidly, about them. Does this work? How does it work? Who made it and made it from what? And at the same time, when and where was the last time I saw it and did it remind me of anything else?... So we launch a wonderful flow of association and alignment in our minds, the length and complexity of which will soon obscure the humble starting point of the process... Take my bed, for example, which can be compared and classified into sketchy categories such as the type of bed at school or in the military... When I was done with the bed, which was too simple to interest me for long, I began to feel the blanket, estimate its warmth, consider the strict mechanism of the window, the inconvenience of the toilet... Calculate the length and width, direction and height of the cell.

Essentially, the same ingenuity in finding opportunities for mental activity and goal-setting is also presented by survivors from any solitary confinement prison, from diplomats captured by terrorists, to older women held by Chinese communists. Eva Zeisel, a potter who was held captive by Stalin-era police in Moscow's Lubyanka prison for more than a year, kept herself awake by thinking about how she would make an undershirt from readily available materials, playing chess with herself in her head, imagining dialogues in French. Exercise and memorize poems composed by yourself. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how one of his fellow prisoners at Lefortovo Prison drew a map of the world on the floor, then imagined himself traveling through Asia, Europe, and then the Americas, a few kilometers a day. The same "game" is explored independently by numerous prisoners; for example, Albert Speer, Hitler's confidant architect, tried to live in Spandau prison for several months by pretending he was on a road trip from Berlin to Jerusalem in which his imagination plotted all the events and landscapes along the way.

An old acquaintance of mine who worked in U.S. Air Force intelligence told the story of a pilot who was imprisoned in North Vietnam for years and lost more than thirty-six kilograms and most of his health at a jungle garrison. When he was released, one of the first things he wanted to do was play a game of golf. To the surprise of his teammates, he played a great game, despite his thin physique. To their questions, he replied that when he was incarcerated, every day he imagined himself playing on an eighteen-hole golf course, carefully selecting the clubs and approaching, systematically adjusting the direction of the ball. This mental training not only helped him keep his sanity, but also helped his physical skills to be honed.

Tollas Tibor, a poet who spent many years in solitary confinement during the most active periods of Hungarian communist activity, said that at Visegrád prison, where hundreds of intellectuals were held, his prison friends kept themselves busy by devising a poetry translation contest that lasted more than a year. First, they have to decide which poem to translate. It took several months to transmit voting information to candidates from room to room and several more months of clever secret messages before counting votes. Finally, it is agreed that the poem O Captain! My Captain! My Captain!) Walt Whitman's song will be translated into Hungarian, partly because it is one that most prisoners can remember the original English version. Once there, serious work begins: everyone sits down to write a poem with their own version. Since there was no paper or writing tools available, Tollas covered the soles of his shoes with a layer of soap and carved letters on them with toothpicks. When he memorized a verse, he covered the soles of his shoes with a new layer of soap. When the stanzas are written, the translator himself must memorize them and pass them on to the next cell. After a while, a dozen versions of the poem were spread throughout the prison and each was evaluated and voted on by all fellow inmates. After translations of Whitman's poem were voted, the inmates moved on to a Schiller poem.

When adversity threatens to paralyze us, we need to gain control by finding a new way to invest mental energy in, one that is beyond the reach of external influences. When each aspiration crumbles, people still have to find a meaningful goal around them to reorganize their egos. Then, even if he is objectively a slave, he is subjectively free. Solzhenitsyn describes very realistically how even the worst situation can turn into a flow experience: "Sometimes, when standing in line with desperate prisoners, amid the screams of guards armed with machine guns, I felt a rush of rhythms and images flashing through my head... At such moments, I am free and happy. Some prisoners tried to escape by storming the barbed wire. To me, there is no barbed wire at all. I didn't escape, but I was actually on a flight a long way away."

It wasn't just prisoners who reported strategies to revive control of their consciousness. Explorers like Admiral Byrd, who spent four dark and cold months alone in a small hut near Antarctica, or Charles Lindbergh, who faced the harsh elements alone on his transatlantic flight, resorted to similar ways to preserve their own integrity. But what makes some people able to retain internal control, while others are swept away by external hardships?

Richard Logan offers an answer based on the accounts of many survivors, including Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim, who pondered the source of strength under miserable adversity. He concluded that the most important characteristic of survivors is "nonself-conscious individualism," or a purpose that is strongly directed without self-interest. People with that quality will insist on doing their best in all circumstances and they don't bother prioritizing their own interests. Because their actions are motivated from within, they are not easily confused by external threats. With enough free mental energy to objectively observe and analyze their surroundings, they are better able to discover new opportunities for action within themselves. If we consider that there is a certain characteristic that is a key element of a self-purposed personality, this may be it. Narcissistic individuals, who are primarily concerned with protecting themselves, collapse when external conditions turn threatening. The panic that arises then prevents them from doing what they have to do; Their attention turns inward in an attempt to rearrange the order of consciousness, and the rest is not enough to reconcile with external reality.

Without a concern for the world, without a desire to engage with it positively, one becomes isolated within oneself. Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness: "Gradually, I learned to be indifferent to myself and my shortcomings; I began to focus my attention on more external audiences: the state of the world, the different branches of knowledge, the individuals from whom I felt influenced." As for how to build a purposeful personality, there's no better brief description than these lines.

Such personalities are partly the gift of biological inheritance and early education. Some people are born with a more flexible and focused nervous system, or are fortunate enough to have parents who promote the personality part without being overly self-aware. But it is also a capacity that can be fostered, a skill that one can master through coaching and discipline. Now is the time to explore more deeply the ways in which this can be done.

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