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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Success, the good life and “flow”

Aristotle, an early positive psychologist

Aristotle, an early positive psychologist

I consider myself–on the whole, give or take–lucky. That’s because I’ve been able to arrange my life in such a way that I spend a fairly large share of it doing something that both suits and pleases me: writing. When I write–whether for The Economist or my book, or even on this little blog–I tend to forget myself and become absorbed in the activity. This is a state that psychologists and new-agey types call flow.

Flow is really important, because it is the basic ingredient of “the good life,” as opposed to the “pleasant life” or the “meaningful life”.

I’m getting those terms from Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology. Watch this fascinating talk by him at the TED conference in 2004.

The premise of Positive Psychology is that traditional psychology has been one-sided by studying only miserable people and freaks and trying to devise ways of ameliorating their misery. Traditional psychologists did not study happy people and geniuses, and did not try to figure out what made these people so. Positive psychology does precisely that. It

  • studies strengths as well as weaknesses
  • tries to build strengths rather than ameliorate damage
  • tries to figure out what makes lives fulfilling

And so we get to the three kinds of “happy” lives: Pleasant, Good and Meaningful.

The pleasant life is about maximizing pleasures. Savoring good food and sex, enjoying sunsets, and so forth. This is great, but there are two problems. 1) The ability to enjoy pleasure is, perhaps surprisingly, hereditary. You’re born with a natural limit on your savoring. 2) Pleasure habituates. The first scoop of gelato tastes divine, the second good, the third fine, the fourth so-so, the fifth is mildly off-putting, the sixth leaves you sick of it forever.

The good life is the one Aristotle talked about a lot. It comes from achieving flow. Parenting, writing, gardening–whatever you’re doing, if you merge with an activity that you are good at, and you do that on a regular basis, then you lead a good life. If you are good with people and happen to be bagging groceries in a supermarket for a living, you can turn the bagging into a social occasion and achieve flow.

The meaningful life is when you use your strengths not just for flow but for something larger than you. Serving others, basically.

The “full life” is defined as having all three. In the context of my book, it might also be called: Success.