Flow: Book Quotes by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the best Flow book quotes by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? How can these quotes help deepen your understanding of the book?

Though we live longer and have more material wealth than ever, many people feel anxious rather than happy. In Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers advice on what flow is and how to cultivate it.

Here are the best Flow book quotes by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The Best Flow Book Quotes

Although we live longer today and have more material wealth than ever, many people feel anxious rather than happy. In Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers an antidote. People are happiest when they feel in control of their inner thoughts and feelings and experience a “flow state”: a sense of enjoyment, purpose, and meaning. 

Below are the best Flow book quotes by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Csikszentmihalyi is saying that people are happy when they feel a sense of control over their thoughts and feelings. When this happens, we experience a “flow” state: We enjoy ourselves, we feel a sense of purpose and meaning, and other things don’t seem to matter as much. Csikszentmihalyi also refers to these states as “optimal experiences,” glimpses into a life we wish we could live all the time. For example, an artist immersed in creating a beautiful painting is experiencing flow (an “optimal experience”). It can also happen when you gain important insight during tough times. 

“Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”

Everyone encounters challenges and obstacles to their health and happiness, some of which are so severe that they make living difficult. And yet, many people who experience difficult circumstances survive and thrive.

“On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.”

The more regularly a person was in flow, the more likely they were to report a high quality of experience. When in flow, they described feeling “active,” “creative,” “concentrated,” “motivated,” and “strong.” In contrast, people experiencing apathy—facing a below-average number of challenges and using a below-average number of skills—described feeling, “dull,” “dissatisfied,” “passive,” and “weak.” People were apathetic:

  • 16 percent of the time at work.
  • 52 percent of the time during leisure.

Lastly, as part of the study, Csikszentmihalyi asked people whether they would rather be doing a different activity. Their response indicates how motivated they feel about their current activity. This question revealed a paradox: When working, people were more likely to say they would rather be doing something else, even if they were in flow; when in leisure, they were content to keep doing what they were doing, even if they weren’t in flow. In other words, even though people reported better quality of experience while working, they still wished they had more leisure time. 

“The psychic entropy peculiar to the human condition involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow.”

You evaluate every piece of information you encounter to determine whether it supports or threatens your goals. When you encounter information that doesn’t fit with your goals, it can cause psychic entropy, or disorder—when your consciousness is diverted from your goals. You may experience emotions like fear, worry, or jealousy, that make it difficult to work on your goals. You have to divert part of your attention to dealing with the information so that it no longer poses a threat. Long-term disruptions to consciousness may cause you to abandon a goal entirely. 

“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

When you get feedback—information—that affirms your goals, working on them is easier: You feel you’re doing well and making progress, which dissipates your worries. This is the opposite of psychic entropy, or disordered consciousness. Your experience is in line with your self and its goals, and you can devote attention where needed. 

“The roots of the word “compete” are the Latin con petire, which meant “to seek together.”

 In competitive activities, you feel most satisfied when your skills are well-matched with those of your opponent, and you’re able to push yourself to win. If you have more skills than your opponent, winning is easy and boring. If you aren’t as skilled, competition can make you feel anxious because you’d like to win, but you can tell you don’t have the skills.

Flow: Book Quotes by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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Here's what you'll find in our full Flow summary :

  • Why people feel the happiest when they're in the "flow state"
  • What activities and personality traits promote flow
  • Why you may have a paradoxical relationship with work and leisure

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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