The Power of Concentration

Picture: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

There is no better time than today to take a very close look at what really constitute happiness and productivity in personal and professional life, not by a long shot. -Amr

This article was first published in 1989 by R. Flaste. It examines the theory of Flow developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian-American psychologist. He recognized and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. He is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College.


FRESH WINDS FROM CANADA tore at the psychologist’s face, bringing tears to his eyes, as he strolled along Lake Michigan with the Chicago skyline back over his shoulders and talked about that most prized of human experiences – pure enjoyment. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a man obsessed by happiness. For more than two decades, most recently as a professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago, he has been trying to identify with some scientific exactness what people mean when they say they are enjoying themselves, how they achieve that enjoyment and how the successful ones manage to keep themselves from falling out of it. More precisely, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-SENT-me-hi) finds himself focusing on one aspect of human experience that he calls flow.

Flow is a state of concentration that amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. In this state, action flows effortlessly from thought and you feel strong, alert and unself-conscious. Flow is that marvelous feeling that you are in command of the present and performing at the peak of your ability. Time stands still. A split second takes forever. You’re a batter, say, and the baseball is coming toward you and it’s suspended there, growing larger and larger; your body is in harmony with the moment and you swing, and connect! Dancers know they are in the flow when they seem to transcend themselves and experience a heightened awareness of their bodies. Painters know it when they enter into a private dialogue with the canvas. Some surgeons know it; some athletes and writers, too. In fact, research suggests that flow may be a common aspect of human existence. It is such a desirable feeling, this state of perfect, powerful absorption, that you want to get there again and again. If you are a painter, for instance, you may find yourself relinquishing the promise of money and comfort and perhaps even the rewards of conventional society. People will ask why you keep painting. Do you think you will be lucky or talented enough to be rich and famous one day? And you will patiently explain, no, you paint for its own sake.

The study of flow is linked to a broad psychological exploration of performance that has gained great favor in recent years. In sports, for example, psychologists have been trying to identify the emotional factors that separate winners from losers, since skill and talent alone clearly cannot account for success. They’ve found that the transcendent achievement of total absorption – ”reaching the zone” – is frequently what makes the difference.

But the zone, as it is usually described, differs from flow in one fundamental way: the whole point of reaching the zone is to win. By contrast, flow psychologists are concerned with enjoyable absorption as an end in itself.

This focus on enjoyment is relatively new in psychology, which has generally been feeble in its ability to tackle normal states of mind. Misery is so much more pressing. Misery cries out for therapy. But insights into the psychology of intense enjoyment may have direct relevance to psychotherapy. If unhappy people can learn techniques that would allow them to experience flow with greater frequency, they may be able to stave off their negative thoughts and feelings. As we sat in the sunny living room of his sprawling apartment a block from the lake, Csikszentmihalyi would clasp his hands behind his head as he thought; his eyes would look off into space and stay there until the thought was fully formed and articulated. He is a stocky man of 55. The beard is white, but his eyebrows are red enough to give you an idea of what he must have looked like when he was a boy in Hungary and Italy around the time of World War II. He recalls clearly his own early experiences with what he would come to call flow. After the war, as a 10-year-old, he was interned by the Italians along with the rest of his family until it could be determined that they weren’t Fascists. There wasn’t much he could do in the refugee camp to salve his worry. But he could play chess against the grown-ups, and he found that during the games he would ”forget about everything.” Years later, he found the same sort of intense, pleasurable absorption in rock climbing.

”This phenomenon did not have to be discovered,” he says now. ”What had to be learned were the conditions that make it possible, and whether they are the same or different from person to person.”

Csikszentmihalyi began trying to answer those questions scientifically 26 years ago, in a study of painters that continues to this day. He found that when he asked them what they were thinking about as they worked, they rarely talked about creating something beautiful. Instead, they talked about the process, about coming to grips with the canvas. They described themselves as being caught up in the flow of the experience.

In the years since this first study of flow began, other researchers have begun to investigate the concept. Along with Csikszentmihalyi, (Continued on Page 000) Flow Jump–pages 94, 99 and 102 27 24,24,0,0,2,0,0,0, 2,17,17>they have extended the research beyond painters to include people engaged in everyday tasks. And mainstream psychologists are starting to take notice. One of them, Jerome L. Singer of Yale, who studies the psychological aspects of imagery and fantasy, describes Csikszentmihalyi as ”one of the deepest thinkers around, a subtle and clever theorist.”

Flow is now being discussed beyond the field of research psychology. At a convention in Utah last spring that brought together experts on leisure activities, flow theory, to use Csikszentmihalyi’s phrase, was applied across a broad field of human endeavor, from tennis to travel. The concept has even reached art educators, who are studying flow so that they can better understand why some people are able to lose themselves in a painting – actually attain a feeling of well-being by looking at a work of art – and how to teach others to engage a painting in that same exhilarating way. And next year Harper & Row will publish a book on flow by Csikszentmihalyi for the lay person.

Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues have found that there is a formula for achieving flow. You must be faced by a challenge – almost any challenge will do – that is not too great for the skills you have to meet it. If the challenge is too great you will be anxious, and anxiety kills flow. If your skills are too great you will be bored, and that is just as bad. The task must also represent an advance, or new complexity. Other sorts of activities, such as eating so as not to be hungry, may be satisfying, but they do not produce flow. They do not involve challenge or growth.

Only by honing your skills will you be able to meet the challenge with enjoyment – and attain the exquisite feeling of control that is a key element of flow. When the tenor Placido Domingo talks about getting his technique down before starting to sing and then letting the passion take over, he seems to be describing his own method for achieving flow. He must master the mechanics before attempting to transcend them, but then his emotions – his great love of the music he is singing – seemingly enable him to perform without thinking about it. Rock climbers, too, must have confidence in their skills before starting a climb – and in this case, their very lives may be on the line. But most climbers will say that the enjoyment lies not in the risk but in their ability to control the risk.

Ritual can be used to focus attention, to help create a situation in which total absorption can take place. Surgeons, for example, may wash their hands and don their gowns in exactly the same way before every operation. This ritual strips the mind of outside concerns, Csikszentmihalyi explains, so that ”by the time they are in the operating room they are so focused, it becomes all there is.”

To maintain that focus, it is necessary to concentrate completely on the present moment, as in self-hypnosis or meditation. Any concern for failing and looking bad – or succeeding and looking good – will break the concentration. Great tennis players often become totally lost in the heat of the game, intent only on making the ball go precisely where they want it to go. ”Their focus is on making a good shot, not on the fear of losing the match,” says Csikszentmihalyi. By contrast, a climber who thinks too much about getting to the top may lose concentration and make mistakes. Instead of thinking about the summit, no matter (Continued on Page 99) how high and beautiful it may be, he must think about the steps he has to climb to get him there.

”You must subordinate the outcome to the immediacy of the moment,” Csikszentmihalyi says. But, as the moment takes over, it needs to be sustained by feedback – you have to have a sense of how you’re doing to continue to meet the challenge. Was the shot good? The color on the canvas right? Friendly competition can help give you something to measure yourself against.

FOR ALMOST 15 YEARS, CSIKszentmihalyi and his colleagues have been using what they call the experience-sampling method to see whether people experience flow while they are engaged in everyday activities. In these studies, subjects wearing electronic pagers are signaled at various times throughout the day to fill out a questionnaire. They answer such questions as ”What was the main thing you were doing just before you were paged?” and ”How well were you concentrating?” The questionnaire helps measure the extent to which the person felt challenged by the activity and whether he or she had the skills needed to accomplish it.

In recent studies in this country and Europe, the test was administered to high school students. The results of these studies lend scientific credence to the theory of flow, and suggest that it’s a fairly common human experience. When students found a task -homework, for example – unusually challenging, and their skills for meeting that challenge were adequate, they were generally able to concentrate and felt happy, creative, motivated, satisfied and in control. When their skills were much greater than required, the students felt bored. On the other hand, when their skills were not up to the task, they tended to feel anxious. Teen-agers who experienced flow frequently reported that they were happy and sociable. By contrast, those who were often bored because of having to perform low-skill activities tended to be sad and dissatisfied.

In a study by Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre, now a psychologist at the University of Southern California, the experience-sampling test was given to workers in five companies in the Chicago area. The results reveal a paradox of American life. Participants tended to ”have much more positive feelings at work than in leisure,” says Csikszentmihalyi. Yet they typically denied those feelings and said they wished they weren’t working.

Csikszentmihalyi derives two key insights from these findings. First, people need to recognize the power that work has to please them, and, second, they need to structure their leisure time so that it provides more opportunities for enjoyable absorption. Many people spend a great deal of time watching television, for example, but according to the study, few of them actually enjoy it. Perhaps this is because television offers little challenge, thus few opportunities for flow.

SOCIETAL ATTITUDES MAY also obstruct flow. Dr. Jean A. Hamilton, a research psychiatrist in Washington, says that our society values extrinsic motivation – the desire for external rewards, such as money or fame – over intrinsic motivation, from which flow arises. The desire for an internal reward can lead a person to pursue art or any other challenging occupation in an idiosyncratic way, heedless of how others may see the work. In Dr. Hamilton’s view, because of the emphasis on extrinsic motivation, some people rarely experience pure enjoyment and feel deeply unsatisfied with (Continued on Page 102) the lives they have chosen.

Her work as a psychotherapist has led her to conclude that some people’s ability to achieve flow has been blocked by life’s experiences. For example, a child’s absorption in the history and arcana of comic books may be discouraged by his parents. But such absorption, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to adult sensibilities, may help foster a child’s ability to become totally involved in other, more enriching kinds of learning. According to Dr. Hamilton, by not respecting what children choose to enjoy, parents and teachers may inadvertently hinder their ability to experience flow later in life.

One approach Dr. Hamilton uses to help patients get in the flow is to find out when they last experienced something resembling total absorption. Was it as a child reading comics, or playing ball? She then tries to encourage whatever ember of flow she finds.

There may be physiological differences between people who experience flow frequently and those who don’t. In a study by Dr. Hamilton sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, volunteers completed a simple task while electrodes measured their brain activity. People who reported that they were generally able to become absorbed in activities in their everyday lives actually used less mental energy to complete the task than those who said they had trouble becoming absorbed. This suggests to Csikszentmihalyi that people who slip easily into flow can concentrate with great efficiency – they screen out concerns that are irrelevant to the task at hand and expend less energy as a result. People who have trouble getting into flow concentrate inefficiently – they have to work harder to focus on a task, which is tiring and discouraging.

Csikszentmihalyi has come to realize that there is a dark side to the sheer joy of flow: it can become an addiction. He cites remarks made by a burglar who was part of a study of juvenile delinquents conducted by other researchers. The burglar said he could not give up the feeling he experienced during a break-in. He told the researchers that if they could show him something that was as much fun as burglarizing a house while the residents were asleep, he would be glad to switch.

People who are addicted to flow tend to narrow drastically the areas in which they can experience it. And when the challenges in those areas are exhausted, the results can be disastrous. Csikszentmihalyi names the great American chess players Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer as examples. ”They had exactly the same personal tragedies,” he says. They were champs at 22, but then there was no one else to beat – no one to provide the challenge they needed to experience flow. Rather than find another type of challenge, Morphy, who played in the mid-19th century, offered to play with all kinds of handicaps, like starting the game with no rook or no queen. He eventually became paranoid and withdrawn, and unable to function.

A similar distortion of life ”can happen to surgeons, to other professionals and to all kinds of people,” Csikszentmihalyi says. ”The addiction takes over and it destroys you.”

But why is flow so enjoyable that we seem driven to achieve this kind of absorption, even, in some cases, to the point of self-destruction? Here Csikszentmihalyi takes a speculative leap. Like the intense pleasure of sex, which helps insure the continuation of the species, the joy presented by new challenges helps insure the development of the mind – an evolutionary imperative, in Csikszentmihalyi’s view. Put another way, he believes that the pleasure derived from meeting challenges of increasing complexity spurs human beings to engage the environment and succeed within it. It is his own notion of man’s manifest destiny: ”We need to be assertive and we need to expand.”

© 1989 NYT

Csikszentmihalyi in Wikipedia