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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘Flow’ & how we can create it by reading great fiction

Photo by Pickawood
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Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been mentioned in so many books I’ve been reading lately. Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction is the first example that comes to mind, but I know there are many other instances. Flow has become a landmark text as well as a bestseller, and I think it’s deserved.

If you haven’t read Flow, it outlines Csikszentmihalyi’s theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.

Essentially it’s mindfulness, but it’s also a bit like ‘being in the zone’, or being so engrossed in an activity that you seem oblivious to what’s going on around you.

Doing something ‘just because’ – rather than for external reasons of money or prestige, for example – is classed by Csikszentmihalyi as an ‘autotelic’ experience. I get this feeling when I’m writing or doing something creative, such as when I’m making handmade cards.
The diagram below tries to convey Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow in the simplest way possible. You can see that on one side of the diagram there’s panic and anxiety: we want to avoid these when seeking flow. Alternatively, we don’t want to creep onto the other side of the spectrum and experience boredom.
Right in the centre is where we want to be, enjoying a degree of challenge that just about stretches our existing skills but doesn’t leave us feeling overwhelmed or under-qualified for the task.

Defining flow visually: finding a degree of challenge which runs parallel to our skills and confidence

A diagram of Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow
A diagram of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, showing how we should find the optimum balance between our skills and confidence and the task’s degree of challenge.

When do you feel ‘flow’? What about when reading a good book?

As you’re reading my blog, perhaps you also experience flow when reading a good book. After a bit of consideration, maybe reading fiction is a great source of flow because:
How can you create ‘flow’ in your own life this week? What about picking up a great book that you’ve been waiting to read?

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