John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


If I had to pick out just one self-help book, I’d go with Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

What is flow? It’s that moment when you are so absorbed by some activity that you lose complete track of time. Nothing else seems to matter. This experience is so enjoyable that people will go to great lengths to do it, even if it means risking life and limb (rock climbing is an example).

Flow is that state in which you feel completely focused on the activity itself. During flow, the self is not found so much as lost. When we are completely absorbed by an activity, we are not worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, or bored with the present. We are deeply engaged, deeply focused.

Flow is what it means to be happy.

In theory, flow can be found anywhere there are challenges to be had. Rock climbers will report flow, but so will surgeons. Reading a good book will absorb some people so deeply that they will forget about the time. If the challenges exceed our skills, we feel anxious. If the challenges are below our skills, we feel bored. Flow is the perfect match between challenge and skill. Just ask the chess master what it means to face the right opponent.

What activity do you do for its own sake? Read, write, water ski, dance, bird-watch...

Mike C’s book (apparently people find it easier to refer to him as Mike C) isn’t a self-help book in the traditional sense. It does not dispense much advice. What it does do is try to lay out the general principles of flow so that people can think more deliberately about finding activities that produce it. Once you starting looking at your world in terms of flow-producing activities, you will not be the same.

We are not, Mike C shows up, particularly happy when are idle. True happiness seems to be a consequence of deep engagement with life. Indeed, some of the activities that people report as making them most happy actually require a fair amount of effort.

Every notice how some people love their work and others hate it? Do you think this is only about the pay or the working conditions? In fact, some people are able to create lives in which they get paid for being in a flow much of the time. [I can attest to this. When I do therapy, I am deeply focused in the moment. Listening well requires deep concentration.]

Flow: the Psychological of Optimal Experience. Read this book; it just might change your life. It did mine.