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Review of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"

By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Simon & Schuster Audio, 1991
Review by J. E. Morris, MA, MS on Jan 20th 2003
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Imagine walking on the Gulf coast, gardening on a spring day, hiking your favorite trail. When did you last lose track of time in your favorite activity? Is it easier to recall the last time you felt immobilized by indecision, boredom, or anxiety?

At a time when psychiatric medications are mass marketed to consumers, there is a creative and accessible alternative for reaching sound mental health. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 bestseller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience has been turned into an audio CD [abridged]. The author is the speaker on this 2-hour CD, which presents a generous overview of thirty years of empirical research on happiness and peak performance. Csikszentmihalyi is an internationally known psychologist who argues that even the most mundane actions can make your life “like a poem.” Csikszentmihalyi explains that all tasks can be done with “efficiency and elegance,” whether running an Olympic relay or brushing one’s teeth. It is this kind of focused energy that characterizes a “flow experience.”

Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher committed to spreading the message that controlling one’s inner life can be our greatest asset, outlines a method for recapturing one’s sense of purpose. His reader-friendly presentation explains what produces flow, and convinces the reader that implementing his concepts has transformative powers. If there is a weakness, it is that the theory, methodology and results become lost in the success stories of assembly line workers, surgeons, athletes, and paralyzed individuals. This may be the fate of any research that is presented by audio.

On occasion, Flow sounds like just another self-help book – read this book and your foundation will be firmer, your vision more clear, and your satisfaction deeper. Classical music has been incorporated, almost as a palate cleanser, to enhance successive lecture points. However, throughout most of the CD, the author’s style is casual and engaging. Points flow smoothly, although a quick flip through his text indicates that Csikszentmihalyi is not reading from the book itself. Only his final presentation on the four habits of the autotelic personality [a person who engages in an activity for its own benefit] seems unnecessarily repetitive.

Csikszentmihalyi makes the case that one of the critical components of flow is a complex self: a self that can weather change and maintain its serenity. The following characteristics are essential to the development of a complex personality:

1.                 Clarity [of intention]

2.                 Centering [oneness of effort]

3.                 Choice

4.                 Commitment [care for what one is doing]

5.                 Challenges that increase with one’s level of mastery

Thus, the objective of flow experience is to concentrate one’s attention on each present moment rather than to continually struggle with the past or worry about tomorrow. The author recognizes, of course, that there are daily and potentially catastrophic stressors in life. Thus, the text includes a discussion of how flow experiences can reduce stress.

In the last minute or two, Csikszentmihalyi makes it clear that this is not just a personal book, but also one with radical social ramifications. He persuasively argues that flow will produce great happiness, and that such happiness creates an opportunity for cultures to strengthen and evolve. This CD renewed my commitment to the principles I discovered in the book. Not only is the audio version a quick refresher for people familiar with flow, but also it is a practical version of Flow for people who spend a lot of time driving, who don’t like to read or who might be intimidated by research-based texts, or who are simply too busy to read the entire book.


© 2003 J. E. Morris


J. E. Morris currently works as a program coordinator and primary counselor at Chrysalis House, Inc., a long-term residential treatment program for women recovering from substance abuse, in Lexington, KY.