How to be happy. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

by on 06 March 2017 | filed in Book Recommendations Self Development

First up, this book has been the hardest I have ever had to summarise. When reading Flow for the first time, on kindle, I highlighted so many memorable sections that, when reviewing I realised I had pretty much highlighted the entire book. That, coupled with the kindle’s less than intuitive method for reviewing highlights made it pretty much impossible to format into anything other than an abridged version of the original text. So I started again and this has caused a love-hate relationship with the book. On re-reading and going through with a good old highlighter pen, I have pretty much highlighted the entire book again. On reading the first couple of chapters, you will see why.

I had heard about Flow for years and on hearing that it was a pretty dry read, it stayed firmly on the back-burner. Also, as part of the Integral Leadership course on which I present, my co-facilitators share the main messages from the book-having of course read it- and it is one of these, again my mentor and teacher Peter Field who handed it to me. In case you haven’t read my review on Viktor Frankl’s Man’s search for meaning, I had asked Peter to recommend his ten most life-changing reads, instead he gave them to me, one at a time, to read and summarise. This is…erm… the second one. So it’s taken me a while. My slow reading, study of other subjects and a slog through the Game of Thrones novels helped the procrastination and avoidance of tackling this again. And I’m glad that I did.

MC’s (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s) book aims to answer a simple question “When do people most feel happy”. A simple question of course with a less than simple answer. Mr C is also very clear to state that this is not a “How to be happy” book, but as you can see from the blog title, I do tend to disagree a little as it is my belief that the information within these pages has done rather a lot to increase my happiness. A bold statement of course but when a book causes you to look at life in a certain way, and helps explain the common factors in our society that cause the seemingly widespread discontent apparent in our culture, I can’t help but learn and grow from this. MC’s point is that happiness cannot be prescribed or followed as a recipe, as it is a completely individual thing. However, evidence suggests that there does seem to be a criteria which, if followed can help us move towards an overall feeling of contentment. This did make me think of cooking. We can’t learn what food to like, but we can be taught how to cook well, therefore enhancing our overall culinary experience.

To me, MC provides us with a template into which we need to place our own preferences, those activities in which we find ourselves in a state of happiness.

But as he is eager to point out


“There is no promise of easy short-cuts in these pages. But for readers who care about such things, there should be enough information to make possible the transition from theory into practice.”


And it’s this practice that fascinated me, the concept that happiness isn’t just something we feel, but something we do. Of course happiness in an emotion, but if we look at in a slightly different way, as has been documented, explored and researched in Flow, then the evidence suggests that happiness doesn’t just come about by chance, as MC says


“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can by or power command. it does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them”


Happiness and pleasure


On reading this, many of you may, as I did, remember incidents where we felt happy as a direct result of something ‘Just happening’. Therefore isn’t it entirely possible that happiness can and indeed quite often does ‘just happen?’

For me, this is where a simple concept, the difference between happiness and pleasure can provided such clarity on the subject of happiness and something which, if taken onboard, considered and acted upon, could very simply, make people happier. In my humble opinion.

Reflecting on my own shallow self and my constant obsessions with all things shiny, silver and usually made by Apple and my constantly enlarging collection of magic books and tricks, many of which I will never perform or read, we can see that I seem to be a contradiction; a man who simultaneously searches for deeper meaning and fulfilment in my life, whilst constantly injecting doses of pleasure to make the nasties go away. I am ashamed to say that I am one of those who, when life feels a bit rubbish, turns to Amazon as well as friends for support. I am indeed a pleasure junkie, but thankfully one who is aware that pleasure, whilst a lovely and important part of life, does not bring long-term happiness.

Pleasure is a short lived experience, an injection of contentment that, if not entirely passive, does not require any investment and does not leave one with a feeling of fulfilment. Watching TV, drugs, sex, food and holidays can all provide huge amounts of pleasure but it’s how we experience them that provides us with the difference. Before I had read Flow, I mentioned in my eBook Go Do, the difference in how I feel after watching TV and what I’m left with after watching a good movie. I have been a movie obsessive since I was a child and watching a movie for me is an investment of my time and energy. I think about the acting, the direction, the emotion that I feel and I can’t abide any talking, noise or disturbance that may break the spell. Quality cinema, to me is an experience and leaves me with a feeling that I have somehow bettered my life, that I have culturally developed a fraction. TV provides me with pleasure but much of it leaves me with a feeling of emptiness, and usually a feeling of regret that I didn’t spend that time watching one of the many movies that I still need to watch before I die. The same with food. I have a terrible weakness for the odd dirty burger, but always feel like I need to cleanse myself afterwards and rid my body of all the horrors within. However, when experiencing a meal that has been cooked and presented with passion, with a lovely drop of red, I feel a contentment and warmth that is a million miles away from the McGuilt of the former culinary faux pas.

There is no positive or negative judgment here, and I truly believe that a life without a few naughty pleasures would be barren existence, but continually chasing a short lived high, evidence suggests, does not in itself lead to long-term happiness. However, according to MC, what does contribute to out overall feeling of contentment with life is a regular dose of enjoyment, optimal experience or flow.


So, if we want to get to the end of our live, what will make it all seem worthwhile? What provides us with the feeling that we have lived and not frittered it all away. I have an inkling that it won’t be the knowledge of what happens in Eastenders throughout the years that will make us rest easy. According to MC, it is a regular state of flow.


“Flow-a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”


To me this explains to me why, other than when the sh*t hit’s the fan, I have always felt a real love of life.

Luckily I have always had flow activities in my life. I have always been fascinated with individual ‘skill’ activities such as skateboarding, juggling, magic, writing, movies, guitar…the list goes on. I’m an obsessive ‘doer’ and I’ve made a living out of it. I am very accustomed to being in the state where time ceases to exist. It’s meditation for me. When I am practicing card magic, learning a guitar piece or doing anything that requires investment of mental energy, the thoughts drift in and out with very little consequence and all the chaff of life seems to fade. Growing up, most of us experience this regularly, but as we age and our lives seem to be engulfed by responsibility, work and practical commitments, the opportunity to lose ourselves can seem scarce to say the least. I’m reminded by the first time I had experienced boredom in years. It was in my daughter’s early years, when she discovered the art of movement and forward propulsion. All of a sudden I couldn’t lose myself in anything, spending hours on end at home, at social functions chasing after her to avoid injury or breakage. Whilst wonderfully happy that I had a child, I sometimes lacked energy and felt bored. I was experiencing a flow drought.

If you are not lucky enough to have a job that provides you with Flow, and you may well might, then it may be time to put some serious thought into finding a way to achieve a flow state. Which is a good time to look at how we can achieve this optimal experience?

The rules of Flow 

So now we know what we are looking for, how do we find it. How do we become more happy? Seems simple, but some of the criteria may be less than obvious. Remember that we are looking at what works for us individually and not things that you ‘should’ enjoy. When looking at our activities and experiences, do they fulfil these criteria? If so, congratulations, you have found your flow. For those who have yet to discover it, congratulations, find activities that contain the following, and your life may be about to improve considerably.


A challenge that requires skill.


Your chosen activity should require an investment of your energy, a level of skill and challenge. It doesn’t necessarily need to be difficult as such. Recreational reading is an example used in Flow. Reading a book, though relaxing, still requires focus and concentration. Reading is a skill that has taken each of us a considerable amount of effort to master. It requires psychic energy and focus. Therefore, it is important to point out that the activity need not be a physical one. As reading is such a popular and universal flow activity, I found MC’s example of reading, fulfilling this criteria, interesting


“The skills involved in reading include not only literacy, but also the ability to translate words into images, to empathise with fictional characters, to anticipate turns of the plot, to criticise and evaluate the authors style, and so on.”

To me this highlights the importance of analysing activities that, on first look, may not seem to contain the required challenge or skill. Skill is a very flexible term, so it’s important to point out that it may not be something that we find a struggle, although a big old challenge may well still provide the flow experience, it’s more about how much focus and commitment the activity requires.

One of my recent obsessions illustrates the need for adapting an activity for it to maintain the challenge element. I have recently learned Rubik’s Cube (yes, I know), it was a little holiday challenge I had set myself. The learning was definitely a challenge, however, now that I know the algorithm and have committed this to memory, completing the cube no longer requires much investment. Now it’s all about timing. While under the pressure of breaking my own record, the challenge is renewed and the obsessive geekery I seem to be known for is maintained. I know what you’re thinking, how was this guy ever single?

Ok maybe not the most exciting of clips, but it makes the point that it doesn’t have to look exciting on the outside to be hugely enjoyable.

It’s also important to point out that the challenge needs to be within our capabilities. Challenging ourselves to go from being completely unfit to running a marathon in a month would result in anxiety and disappointment very soon. However, giving ourselves the goal to achieve this in the next six years may result in apathy and boredom. There is a sweet spot that results in this level of enjoyment, and it’s only through doing that we will find it. On the flipside, I have witnessed so many times people’s lack of belief in themselves and their capabilities. By convincing ourselves that we are not up to the challenge, we can easily avoid the challenge of so many activities and therefore avoid the opportunity of enjoyment and flow.


Being at one with what you are doing, and the vanishing of time.


Yes it all sounds very new-age doesn’t it. But it’s a very real experience which we all have when we are involved in the activities that we love. The challenge and focus required for the activity will leave no space for us to think about anything else. The result is a complete absorption in what we are doing.


“…people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.”


Though the word ‘performing’ is in a different context here, performing on stage is as clear example of this. When on stage, if the gig is a nice one, a performer will lose all sense of being separate from the moment. He or She will lose a sense of anything other than what is happening and their activity. I am reminded so many times of street performers in Covent Garden who, no matter how much they tried, could not stick to time and would therefore be penalised for it (ahem). All else, including the passage of time becomes non-existent or radically distorted and for some, habits need to be formed to allow us to avoid becoming overtaken by the activity. From Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft, I’ve seen this happen many times.


Doing it for it’s own sake (An autotelic experience)


As a magician and juggler this provided such clarity. The world of juggling and magic share many similarities, as they do with many sub-cultures based around activities. There is, however, one main difference that, to me, makes a juggling event so much more ‘joyful’. When one becomes a juggler, there is an acceptance that there is no reason to do it other that the joy of doing it. (You can see that juggling and magic for many fulfil the flow criteria). You juggle because it is fun. That’s it. Maybe later other challenges come into play but that’s usually all there is to it. The enjoyment comes from only the activity itself and has no real practical result, and if it did have such a result, it would be a by-product of the flow activity. Passionate as many are about football (i’ve tried), the enjoyment of the game and the win will make very little difference to the outside world. This to many is seen as a negative. “What’s the point” is heard as an argument against doing something with no practical outcome. But that, in itself is the point. The things that people love to do may or may not have any external consequence, but this becomes irrelevant to the enjoyment of the activity. The result will of course add to the experience and provide a feeling of achievement and wellbeing, as will winning a game of chess.

Going back to magicians and jugglers. There is a school of thought in magic that everything needs to have a meaning and should adhere to certain rules. A good example of this is flourishing. Flourishing is that stuff that people do with playing cards that looks really pretty. Fancy cuts and spins that are very difficult to learn but result in no ‘trick’ at the end. Some magicians look down on such activities as pointless. When apparently there is much point in finding a lost card in a deck (don’t get me started). It’s all about what should and shouldn’t be done. Personally I don’t perform flourishes much when working, but learning a flourish is probably the most intense sense of flow I have every experienced. There is no point. The experience itself provides such enjoyment, like juggling, that for someone to belittle it with ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ seems ridiculous. If you walk into a room full of card magicians and some are practicing flourishes, you will clearly see the people in flow. It will be those flourishing or those sharing their learned skill. Walk into a hall at a juggling convention and you will feel the enjoyment in the room, as you will a sports event. Don’t get too hung up meaning and practicality, the pointless stuff tends to be the fun stuff, and if you love the practical stuff, that’s having fun with a great side effect. I envy you!


Goals and feedback


This sounds a little contradictory as goals are often used in our language to describe practical and work-related outcomes, which can in themselves provide deep enjoyment. But what we are talking about here is some form of goal within the activity. Learning a skill, overcoming a challenge, wining a game, finishing a jigsaw, working out a problem, finding out what happens next, reaching the top of a mountain, potting the ball, closing a deal, building a wall, fixing a car and so on. They may or may not have practical outcomes but the activities will contain some sort of achievement, however small. We may lose the game but the point is that we had the intention or the goal of winning it, or in a teaching situation, learning it. If you sit on the beach with friends, throwing stones in front of you, it soon becomes very tedious, unless you are my five year old son, who finds this endlessly enjoyable. Stick a can in front of you to hit and it becomes more fun, add a little bit of challenge (hit it in three) and now we’re talking, and put money on the challenge and for many of us, we’ve lost hours (and of course, money).


Cut out the nasties


As mentioned before, our concentration and focus on the activity will leave little for other thoughts. In 1956 George Miller published his paper on ‘The magical seven plus or minus two’ stating that we can only really hold between five to nine pieces of information in our mind at once. And this isn’t talking about when we are focused, this is just the flipping from one thing to the other that our minds will have to do on a day to day basis. I’ve simplified massively here but the research is clear that the more we focus down on something, the less we can think about or notice, to the point of not seeing things that are directly in front of us. Myself and neuroscientist Gustav Kuhn , a lovely man indeed, did a TEDX talk on change blindness, inattentional blindness and other such things that cause us to miss the obvious. I was listening to an audiobook the other day on my headphones when i started thinking about something else, after ten minutes I realised that I had heard nothing of the information that was being piped very loudly straight into my ears. You may put this down to my being male, however, though it maybe happens more to me than to many, I now have science to back me up! (Incidentally, my TEDX talk overran the strict TED time guidelines. I would like to say that this was because I was in flow, but the reality is that a broken timer and lack of rehearsal were probably more to blame.)

The point here is that because of the concentration involved, people will forget all of their day to day worries. Negative thoughts or trivialities genuinely, for that amount of time, cease to exist and providing our minds with stress free experience is of course no bad thing in these times. So if you’re problems are still seeping into your consciousness regularly, you may need to try and find another activity, or add some challenge to the existing one.




Through MC’s studies and research, the feeling of control was a considerable factor in these experiences. Sometimes in life we can feel helpless and vulnerable, but when individuals were in a state of flow, a feeling of complete control was reported time and time again. This is not necessarily being in control, but feeling in control. MC calls this the Paradox of control. There is no worry or concern of failure, even though failure is very much possible. When performing magic and having a good time, I have no fear of getting the trick wrong or mistiming a move, even though this can and does sometimes happen, but if I am trying out a new routine at which I am not yet unconsciously competent, my head is full of worry, my hands shake and it’s an altogether unpleasant experience. This I have learned, is part of the process and a barrier that must be overcome every time, but that’s another subject for another post. The relevance is that there is always a risk of things going wrong, but here the participant feels none of this risk. They will learn the skills and attain the knowledge to minimise the risk as much as possible. Leaving the feeling of being completely and utterly in control of themselves and their environment.


Go find your flow


So I have to be careful here because I can very much imagine falling into writing an abridged, and a more poorly written version of the whole book again. There is just so much here from which to benefit. The important thing to remember and the main takeaway for me was that the things we love to do, regardless of their outcome (if not negative for others), are important. They are indeed essential. In the last few years I fell into the trap of believing that if something didn’t result in a booking, or some work or reward, then it wasn’t worth doing. I stopped learning magic tricks that I may never perform, I stopped learning flourishes with cards because there was ‘no point’, I stopped playing. The result of which was what I now see as the wilderness years. It’s our play and our unselfconscious joy that recharges us to work and live effectively. And one very importantly thing I have learned is that you should never judge an activity until you’ve tried it. Hidden enjoyment can be found in those things that from the outside hold no interest. I didn’t like juggling until I found some juggling balls in my girlfriends kitchen in student halls. They were in a little box with a little instruction leaflet. I was bored and I had a little look and in that moment my life changed. Busking, circus school, Covent Garden, street performing around the world, learning magic, winning a few awards and becoming a professional magician. This has now lead to leadership coaching and presenting. All from something I thought was pointless and a bit stupid. So next time you get the chance to try something new, have a go and find your flow.


Steve Faulkner is a speaker, leadership trainer, presenter and award winning professional magician. Check out his magic site for that side of things and get in touch if you would like him to come and improve your organisation.