Finding Flow

The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life


By Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi

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From the bestselling author of Flow and one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness, an indispensable guide to living your best life.

What makes a good life? Is it money? An important job? Leisure time? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes our obsessive focus on such measures has led us astray. Work fills our days with anxiety and pressure, so that during our free time, we tend to live in boredom, absorbed by our screens.

What are we missing? To answer this question, Csikszentmihalyi studied thousands of people, and he found the key. People are happiest when they challenge themselves with tasks that demand a high degree of skill and commitment, and which are undertaken for their own sake. Instead of scrolling on your phone, play the piano. Take a routine chore and figure out how to do it better, faster, more efficiently. In short, learn the hidden power of complete engagement, a psychological state the author calls flow. Though they appear simple, the lessons in Finding Flow are life-changing.


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The Structures of Everyday Life

If we really want to live, we’d better start at once to try;

If we don’t, it doesn’t matter, but we’d better start to die.

—W. H. Auden

The lines by Auden reproduced above compress precisely what this book is about. The choice is simple: between now and the inevitable end of our days, we can choose either to live or to die. Biological life is an automatic process, as long as we take care of the needs of the body. But to live in the sense the poet means it is by no means something that will happen by itself. In fact everything conspires against it: if we don’t take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency. Biologically programmed instincts will use it to replicate the genetic material we carry; the culture will make sure that we use it to propagate its values and institutions; and other people will try to take as much of our energy as possible to further their own agenda—all of this without regard to how any of this will affect us. We cannot expect anyone to help us live; we must discover how to do it by ourselves.

So what does “to live” mean in this context? Obviously, it doesn’t refer simply to biological survival. It must mean to live in fullness, without waste of time and potential, expressing one’s uniqueness, yet participating intimately in the complexity of the cosmos. This book will explore ways of living in this manner, relying as much as possible on findings in contemporary psychology and my own research, as well as on the wisdom of the past, in whatever form it was recorded.

I will reopen the question of “What is a good life?” in a very modest fashion. Instead of dealing in prophecies and mysteries I will try to stay as close to reasonable evidence as possible, focusing on the mundane, the everyday events that we typically encounter throughout a normal day.

A concrete example may illustrate best what I mean by leading a good life. Years ago my students and I studied a factory where railroad cars were assembled. The main workplace was a huge, dirty hangar where one could hardly hear a word because of the constant noise. Most of the welders who worked there hated their jobs, and were constantly watching the clock in anticipation of quitting time. As soon as they were out of the factory they hurried to the neighborhood saloons, or took a drive across the state line for more lively action.

Except for one of them. The exception was Joe, a barely literate man in his early sixties, who had trained himself to understand and to fix every piece of equipment in the factory, from cranes to computer monitors. He loved to take on machinery that didn’t work, figure out what was wrong with it, and set it right again. At home, he and his wife built a large rock garden on two empty lots next to their house, and in it he built misty fountains that made rainbows—even at night. The hundred or so welders who worked at the same plant respected Joe, even though they couldn’t quite make him out. They asked his help whenever there was any problem. Many claimed that without Joe the factory might just as well close.

Throughout the years I have met many CEOs of major companies, powerful politicians, and several dozen Nobel Prize–winners—eminent people who in many ways led excellent lives, but none that was better than Joe’s. What makes a life like his serene, useful, and worth living? This is the crucial question this book will address. Three main assumptions underlie my approach. The first is that prophets, poets, and philosophers have gleaned important truths in the past, truths that are essential for our continued survival. But these have been expressed in the conceptual vocabulary of their time, so that to be useful, their meaning has to be rediscovered and reinterpreted every generation. The sacred books of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and the Veda are the best repositories of the ideas that mattered most to our ancestors, and to ignore them is an act of childish conceit. But it is equally naive to believe that whatever was written down in the past contains an absolute truth that lasts forever.

The second plank on which this book is built is that currently science provides the most vital information to humankind. Scientific truth is also expressed in terms of the worldview of the times, and therefore will change and might be discarded in the future. There is probably as much superstition and misunderstanding embedded in modern science as there was in the old myths, but we are too close in time to tell the difference. Perhaps eventually ESP and spiritual energy will lead us to immediate truth without the need for theories and laboratories. But shortcuts are dangerous; we cannot delude ourselves that our knowledge is further along than it actually is. For better or for worse, at this time science is still the most trustworthy mirror of reality, and we ignore it only at our peril.

The third assumption is that if we wish to understand what real “living” entails, we should listen to the voices of the past, and integrate their messages with the knowledge that science is slowly accumulating. Ideological gestures—such as Rousseau’s project of returning to nature, which was a precursor to the Freudian faith—are just empty posturing when one has no idea what human nature is. There is no hope in the past. There is no solution to be found in the present. Nor will we be better off by jumping ahead into an imaginary future. The only path to finding out what life is about is a patient, slow attempt to make sense of the realities of the past and the possibilities of the future as they can be understood in the present.

Accordingly, in this book “life” will mean what we experience from morning to night, seven days a week, for about seventy years if we are lucky, for even longer if we are very fortunate. This might seem a narrow perspective when compared to the much more exalted views of life that myths and religions have made us familiar with. But to turn Pascal’s wager on its head, it seems that, when in doubt, the best strategy is to assume that these seventy or so years are our only chance to experience the cosmos, and we should make the fullest use of it. For if we don’t, we might lose everything; whereas if we are wrong and there is life beyond the grave, we lose nothing.

What this life will amount to is in part determined by the chemical processes in our body, by the biological interaction among organs, by the tiny electrical currents jumping between the synapses of the brain, and by the organization of information that the culture imposes on our mind. But the actual quality of life—what we do, and how we feel about it—will be determined by our thoughts and emotions; by the interpretations we give to chemical, biological, and social processes. Studying the stream of consciousness passing through the mind is the province of phenomenological philosophy. My work in the past thirty years has consisted in developing a systematic phenomenology that makes use of the tools of the social sciences—primarily psychology and sociology—in order to answer the question: What is life like? And the more practical question: How can each person create an excellent life?

The first step in answering such questions involves getting a good grasp of the forces that shape what we can experience. Whether we like it or not, each of us is constrained by limits on what we can do and feel. To ignore these limits leads to denial and eventually to failure. To achieve excellence, we must first understand the reality of the everyday, with all its demands and potential frustrations. In many of the ancient myths, a person who wanted to find happiness, love, or eternal life, had to first travel through the netherworld. Before being allowed to contemplate the splendors of heaven, Dante had to wander through the horrors of hell so he could understand what kept us from entering the pearly gates. The same is true of the more secular quest we are about to begin.

Baboons who live in the African plains spend about one-third of their life sleeping, and when awake they divide their time between traveling, finding and eating food, and free leisure time—which basically consists in interacting, or grooming each other’s fur to pick out lice. It is not a very exciting life, yet not much has changed in the million years since humans evolved out of common simian ancestors. The requirements of life still dictate that we spend our time in a way that is not that different from the African baboons. Give and take a few hours, most people sleep one-third of the day, and use the remainder to work, travel, and rest in more or less the same proportions as the baboons do. And as the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has shown, in thirteenth century French villages—which were among the most advanced in the world at the time—the most common leisure pursuit was still that of picking lice out of each other’s hair. Now, of course, we have television.

The cycles of rest, production, consumption, and interaction are as much a part of how we experience life as our senses—vision, hearing, and so forth—are. Because the nervous system is so constructed that it can only process a small amount of information at any given moment, most of what we can experience must be experienced serially, one thing after the other. It is often said of a rich and powerful man that “Like the rest of us, he must pull his trousers on one leg at a time.” We can swallow only one bite, hear only one song, read one paper, have one conversation at a time. Thus the limitations on attention, which determines the amount of psychic energy we have for experiencing the world, provide an inflexible script for us to live by. Across time and in different cultures, what people do and for how long is astonishingly similar.

Having just said that in some important respects all lives are similar, one must hasten to recognize the obvious differences. A Manhattan stockbroker, a Chinese peasant, and a bushman of the Kalahari will play out the basic human script in ways that at first will seem to have nothing in common. Writing about Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the historians Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge comment: “Daily life unfolded within the frame of enduring gender and social hierarchies.” This is true of all social groups we have knowledge of: How a person lives depends in large part on sex, age, and social position.

The accident of birth puts a person in a slot that greatly determines what sorts of experiences his or her life will consist of. A boy of six or seven years, born into a poor family in one of the industrial regions of England two hundred years ago, was likely to wake up around five in the morning, rush to the mill to service the clanking mechanical looms till sunset, six days a week. Often he would die of exhaustion before reaching his teens. A girl of twelve in the silk-making regions of France around the same time would sit next to a tub all day, dipping silkworm cocoons in scalding water to melt the sticky substance that held the threads together. She was likely to succumb to respiratory diseases as she sat in wet clothes from dawn to dusk, and her fingertips eventually lost all feeling from the hot water. In the meantime, the children of the nobility learned to dance the minuet and to converse in foreign languages.

The same differences in life-chances are still with us. What can a child born into an urban slum in Los Angeles, Detroit, Cairo, or Mexico City expect to experience during a lifetime? How is that going to differ from the expectations of a child born into an affluent American suburb, or a well-to-do Swedish or Swiss family? Unfortunately there is no justice, nor any rhyme or reason, in one person being born into a starving community, perhaps even with a congenital physical defect, while another starts life with good looks, good health, and a large bank account.

So while the main parameters of life are fixed, and no person can avoid resting, eating, interacting, and doing at least some work, humanity is divided into social categories that determine to a large extent the specific content of experience. And to make it all more interesting, there is, of course, the matter of individuality.

If we look out of a window in winter, we might see millions of identical snowflakes cavorting by. But if we took a magnifying glass and looked at the flakes separately, we would soon discover that they were not identical—in fact, that each had a shape that no other flake duplicated exactly. The same is true of human beings. We can tell quite a lot about what Susan will experience just by the fact that she is human. We can tell even more by knowing she is an American girl, living in a certain specific community, with parents of such and such an occupation. But after everything is said and done, knowing all the external parameters will not allow us to predict what Susan’s life will be like. Not only because random chance might throw all bets off, but more importantly, because Susan has a mind of her own with which she can either decide to squander her opportunities, or conversely overcome some of the disadvantages of her birth.

It is because of this flexibility of human consciousness that a book such as this can be written. If everything was determined by the common human condition, by social and cultural categories, and by chance, it would be useless to reflect on ways to make one’s life excellent. Fortunately there is enough room for personal initiative and choice to make a real difference. And those who believe this are the ones with the best chance to break free from the grip of fate.

To live means to experience—through doing, feeling, thinking. Experience takes place in time, so time is the ultimate scarce resource we have. Over the years, the content of experience will determine the quality of life. Therefore one of the most essential decisions any of us can make is about how one’s time is allocated or invested. Of course, how we invest time is not our decision alone to make. As we have seen earlier, stringent constraints dictate what we should do either as members of the human race, or because we belong to a certain culture and society. Nevertheless, there is room for personal choices, and control over time is to a certain extent in our hands. As the historian E. P. Thompson noted, even in the most oppressive decades of the Industrial Revolution, when workers slaved away for more than eighty hours a week in mines and factories, there were some who spent their few precious free hours in literary pursuits or political action instead of following the majority into the pubs.

The terms we use in talking about time—budgeting, investing, allocating, wasting—are borrowed from the language of finance. Consequently some people claim that our attitude toward time is colored by our peculiar capitalist heritage. It is true that the maxim “Time is money” was a favorite of that great apologist of capitalism, Benjamin Franklin, but the equation of the two terms is certainly much older, and rooted in the common human experience, rather than in our culture alone. In fact it could be argued that it is money that gets its value from time, rather than the other way around. Money is simply the most generally used counter for measuring the time invested in doing or making something. And we value money because to a certain extent it liberates us from the constraints of life by making it possible to have free time to do in it what we want.

What, then, do people do with their time? Table 1 gives a general notion of how we spend the sixteen or so hours a day in which we are awake and conscious. The figures are by necessity approximate, because depending on whether a person is young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, vastly different patterns might result. But by and large, the numbers in the table can begin to describe what an average day in our society looks like. They are in many ways quite similar to those obtained by time budgets in other industrialized countries.

Table 1

Where Does Time Go?

Based on daytime activities reported by representative adults and teenagers in recent U.S. studies. Percentages will differ by age, gender, social class, and personal preference—minimum and maximum ranges are indicated. Each percentage point is equivalent to about one hour per week.

Productive Activities Total: 24–60%

Working at work, or studying 20–45%

Talking, eating, daydreaming while at work 4–15%

Maintenance Activities Total: 20–42%

Housework (cooking, cleaning, shopping) 8–22%

Eating 3–5%

Grooming (washing up, dressing) 3–6%

Driving, transportation 6–9%

Leisure Activities Total: 20–43%

Media (TV and reading) 9–13%

Hobbies, sports, movies, restaurants 4–13%

Talking, socializing 4–12%

Idling, resting 3–5%

Sources: Csikszentmihalyi and Graef 1980; Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi 1990; Larson and Richards 1994.

What we do during an average day can be divided into three major kinds of activities. The first and largest includes what we must do in order to generate energy for survival and comfort. Nowadays this is almost synonymous with “making money,” since money has become the medium of exchange for most things. However, for young people still in school, learning might be included among these productive activities, because for them education is the equivalent of adult work, and the first will lead into the second.

Between a quarter to more than half of our psychic energy goes into such productive activities, depending on the kind of job, and whether one works full or part time. Although most full-time workers are on the job about forty hours a week, which is 35 percent of the 112 waking hours of the week, the figure does not reflect reality exactly, because of the forty hours per week spent on the job workers actually work only about thirty, the remainder being spent in talking, daydreaming, making lists, and other occupations irrelevant to work.

Is this much time or little? It depends on what we compare it to. According to some anthropologists, among the least technologically developed societies, such as the tribesmen of the Brazilian jungles or the African deserts, grown men rarely spend more than four hours a day providing for their livelihood—the rest of the time they spend resting, chatting, singing, and dancing. On the other hand, during the hundred years or so of industrialization in the West, before the unions were able to regulate working time, it was not unusual for workers to spend twelve or more hours a day in the factory. So the eight-hour workday, which is currently the norm, is about halfway between the two extremes.

Productive activities create new energy; but we need to do a great deal of work just to preserve the body and its possessions. Therefore about a fourth of our day is involved in various sorts of maintenance activities. We keep the body in shape by eating, resting, grooming; our possessions by cleaning, cooking, shopping, and doing all sorts of housework. Traditionally women have been burdened by maintenance work while men have taken on the productive roles. This difference is still quite strong in the contemporary U.S.: while men and women spend equal amounts of time eating (about 5 percent), women devote twice as much time as men do to all the other maintenance activities.

The gender-typing of household tasks is of course even more severe practically everywhere else. In the former Soviet Union, where gender equality was a matter of ideology, married women doctors and engineers still had to do all the housework in addition to their paying jobs. In most of the world, a man who cooks for his family or does the dishes loses his self-respect as well as the respect of others.

This division of labor seems to be as old as humanity itself. In the past, however, the maintenance of the household often required enormously strenuous labor from women. One historian describes the situation in Europe four centuries ago:

Women carried water to steep mountain terraces in areas… where water was scarce.… They cut and dried turf, collected kelp, firewood, weeds by the roadside to feed rabbits. They milked cows and goats, grew vegetables, collected chestnuts and herbs. The commonest source of heating for British and some Irish and Dutch farmers was animal turds, which were gathered by hand by women and received their final drying out stacked near the family fire.…

Plumbing and electronic appliances have certainly made a difference in the amount of physical effort it takes to run a household, just as technology has eased the physical burden of productive work. But most women in Asia, Africa, and South America—in other words, most women in the world—still have to devote a major part of their lives to keeping the material and emotional infrastructure of their families from collapsing.

Time left over from productive and maintenance necessities is free time, or leisure, which takes up about another fourth of our total time. According to many past thinkers, men and women could only realize their potential when they had nothing to do. It is during leisure, according to the Greek philosophers, that we become truly human by devoting time to self-development—to learning, to the arts, to political activity. In fact the Greek term for leisure, scholea, is the root from which our word “school” comes from, since the idea was that the best use for leisure was to study.

Unfortunately this ideal is seldom realized. In our society free time is occupied by three major sorts of activities—none being quite up to what the Greek scholars, or men of leisure, had in mind. The first is media consumption—mostly television, with a sprinkling of newspaper and magazine reading. The second is conversation. The third is a more active use of free time, and therefore the closest to the old ideal: it involves hobbies, making music, doing sports and exercise, going to restaurants and movies. Each of these three major kinds of leisure takes at least four and as much as twelve hours each week.

Watching TV, which on the average takes up the most psychic energy of all leisure pursuits, is probably also the most novel form of activity in human experience. Nothing men and women have done so far during the millions of years of evolution has been as passive, as addictive in the ease with which it attracts attention and keeps hold of it—unless we count staring into space, taking a siesta, or going into a trance as the Balinese were wont to do. The apologists for the medium claim that all sorts of interesting information is provided by television. This is true, but as it is much easier to produce programs that titillate rather than elevate the viewer, what most people watch is unlikely to help in developing the self.

These three main functions—production, maintenance, and leisure—absorb our psychic energy. They provide the information that goes through the mind day after day, from birth to the end of life. Thus, in essence, what our life is consists in experiences related to work, to keeping things we already have from falling apart, and to whatever else we do in our free time. It is within these parameters that life unfolds, and it is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.

Everyday life is defined not only by what we do, but also by who we are with. Our actions and feelings are always influenced by other people, whether they are present or not. Ever since Aristotle it has been known that humans were social animals; both physically and psychologically we depend on the company of others. Cultures differ in terms of how much a person is influenced by others, or by the internalized opinion of others when they are alone. For example, traditional Hindu persons were not considered to be separate individuals as we think of them, but rather nodes in an extended social network. One’s identity was determined not so much by one’s unique thoughts and actions, but rather by whose child, sibling, cousin, parent one was. In our time also, compared to Caucasian children, those from East Asian backgrounds are much more aware of parental expectations and opinions even when they are alone—in psychoanalytic terms, we might say that they have a stronger superego. But no matter how individualistic a culture might become, other people still determine to a large extent the quality of a person’s life.

Most people spend roughly equal amounts of time in three social contexts. The first is made up of strangers, coworkers, or—for young people—fellow students. This “public” space is where one’s actions are evaluated by others, where one competes for resources, and where one might establish collaborative relationships with others. It has been argued that this public sphere of action is the most important for developing one’s potential, the one where the highest risks are run but the greatest growth occurs.


  • "Csikszentmihalyi eloquently argues that living fully in the here and now requires that one heed the lessons of the past."—New York Times Book Review
  • "This famous psychologist of 'peak experience' returns to the themes of his 1990 classic, Flow, how to reach the peak through focused energy, and how humans mark the universe in unique ways-but this time the explanation is shorter, sharper, and far more accessible."—Utne Reader
  • "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a genius for illuminating phenomena that perplex most behavioral scientists. In this brilliant synthesis, he shows how all of us can enhance our work, our play, our lives."—Howard Gardner, author of Multiple Intelligences
  • "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a man obsessed by happiness."—Richard Flaste, New York Times Magazine

On Sale
Apr 6, 1998
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi

About the Author

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2021) was Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University and the founder and codirector of the Quality of Life Research Center. He was the author of a number of books, including the bestselling Flow, The Evolving Self, Creativity, and Being Adolescent.

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