Beyond arousal and control: “Flow”


I really like this visual depiction of flow.

Some of you might remember that I am fascinated with the concept of flow, and the Positive Psychology that is based on it.

Flow is a state of effortless and complete absorption into whatever we are doing, a state in which we are and feel at our best and most creative, when we achieve harmony and mastery, when we forget time and feel good.

Flow does not come easily, of course. They say that it takes ten years of training at something–soccer, violin, writing, you name it–before you become able to slip into flow.

Which brings me to this diagram. It is by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an unpronouncable Hungarian psychologist who might just belong into my growing pantheon of great thinkers. Indeed, quite a few people consider him a great thinker, and he has even received an award called Thinker of the Year.

You can view the diagram the following way:

Most of us spend most of our time hanging out somewhere near the bottom left:

  • We are apathetic because we are not challenged and have not applied ourselves to mastery of anything, or
  • we have taken up a challenge unprepared and are floundering, which causes us to worry, or
  • we are good at something but not challenged, so we become bored.

The way out is two sweep either clockwise or counterclockwise in the diagram:

  • Challenge yourself, by finding something you want to master. If your skill level is low, at least you will feel aroused, which is a good first step toward learning and flow.


  • Keep learning, practicing, mastering, refining. Even if you are not challenged yet, you will become relaxed and feel in control, which builds confidence and is also a great step toward flow.

This is, of course, nothing but the self-help manual of the Samurai and Zen disciples through the centuries.

It’s also a great reminder for us parents and teachers (especially those public-school bureaucrats in America): You must, you must, you must challenge a child to “educate” (ex-ducare = lead out) him or her from apathy.

Watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk:

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19 thoughts on “Beyond arousal and control: “Flow”

  1. I have to say this really hit the spot tonight. The other night I stumbled upon this piece on netflix Its not directly related, but I felt like it really linked with the rampant pride-in-apathy I see around us. Its amazing, and ironic how much effort goes into maintaining the path of least resistance. I saw the diagram on your post “The Economist: bland, trite and worthy?” and loved it there. I’m glad you’ve gone more in depth with this.

    • Thanks for noticing it on the previous post! I’ve now moved it to this one.

      One risk of an intimate medium such as blogging is that the writer sooner or later assumes that readers can read his mind. I realized I was assuming that when I put the diagram above the previous post without explanation, which made no sense.

      “Stupidity” is … what? An intelligent movie about people being stupid?

    • “Stupidity” is a social commentary on the intentional push away from learning. A self imposed apathy & mental sloth as it were. It isn’t great art but is certainly a conversation starter if nothing else. It could be compared to “Supersize Me,” without the calories.

  2. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s “Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” is one of my favourite book.

    Now, I forgot which book of his (may be “Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experienc”?) I heard the wonderful story of a factory machinist that is very good with fixing things, he enjoys his garden so much that he machined an irrigation system that lets him see rainbows at night with a set of lights.

    • That’s part of what I love about flow: That absorption and mastery can happen during lofty tasks and “lowly” tasks alike. You can flow while mopping the floor.

    • Fun, absolutely.

      That said, i also recall the images of Zen disciples (or violinists or acrobats….) working really, really hard, fun or no fun, for many years to achieve the mastery which then … suddenly and unannounced, allows them to enter flow.

      Perhaps the lesson is: Have fun, but press on even when it sometimes stops being fun.

    • Going by the diagram, I would consider ‘fun’ to be synonymous with flow rather than a component of Flow . High skill level+high level of challenge
      = Fun=Flow.

      What interests me is whether people can continue practising and refining something which doesn’t challenge them for long enough to reach a state of relaxation and hence flow. Surely boredom would predominate in a situation like that.I believe most people would opt for the first solution (find something you want to master)than the second(keep at it even if it bores you).

  3. I’ve always pronounced it “chickenshit-m’holly.” How do you pronounce it?

    Not respectful, I know. But, that’s how I read it the first time (many years ago) and I can’t see it any other way.

  4. That’s as good a pronunciation as any I can think of.

    So, all of you have heard about this guy long ago, it seems.

    Amazing. he’s fairly new to me. I live a sheltered life.

  5. Why didn’t Mihaly Whats-His-name do the sensible thing and Americanize his name so Americans could say it?

    How about Mike Chick? What name would better resonate with the great American thinking public?

  6. Thanks for the post! I’m a Csíkszentmihályi devotee, but I hadn’t seen the graphic that you’ve included. I’ve been trying to decide which sector I spend most time in when I’m reading the Economist!

  7. Absolutely great and irrefragable. Naturally, I tried to place myself in the diagram, and it made me feel content to realize that I’m in the right quarter ))) Not flow, not yet. But I’m getting there, being aroused, being challenged, learning the skills and cooling down my sparkling energy from time to time (control). Learning to focus and meditate )))

    Thanks for bringing up the topic!

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