Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines “the optimal experience” in Flow (1990). Flow is described as a nearly euphoric, immersive state of ecstasy during focused productivity that occurs when a nearly one to one ratio of challenge-to-ability is achieved and some basic conditions, such as clear goals, immediate feedback, and flexible challenges are met. Csikszentmihalyi goes on to suggest that those most likely to experience a flow state have an “autotelic” personality, an accumulation of low self-centeredness, curiosity, and self-motivation to name a few traits (1990).
While flow states seem to have legitimacy and merit to them, as evidenced by countless researchers supporting the concept (Harmat, Andersen, Ullen, Wright, & Sadlo, 2016), a particularly concerning reoccurrence appears in Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book: achieving flow in unideal conditions. It is postulated that even those in forced labor or internment hold the ability to find the “optimal experience” via an achieved flow state, and thus even though “that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).” Challenge, adversity, and particular character strengths may give rise to either an individual immersing themselves into productivity as a means of distraction, a coping mechanism for a brutal situation, akin to workaholics (Huljich, 2012). Further, Csikszentmihalyi seems to conflate Viktor Frankl’s (1963) notion of finding meaning to life in even the most horrid of conditions with an autotelic personality. While there may be overlap of the two concepts, it is hard to imagine someone having the “optimal human experience” in an internment camp. It could be assumed that if flow conditions may be induced through reeducation and provisions of task design, that people could be manipulated into self-dissociative production machines of flow, no matter how grizzly the circumstances.
Frankl was not free from criticisms for his ideas, and Csikszentmihalyi echoes Frankl’s most contentious point of personal accountability for experience when he states that it “depends more on a person’s approach to [work dissatisfaction] than on actual working conditions (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).” The question arises: Is it psychologically sustainable to be in a job we do not identify with, so long as we readjust our “approach”? Csikszentmihalyi (1990) appears to notice the juxtaposition of job dissatisfaction and people’s general feeling that their job is “something they have to do, a burden imposed” externally. Csikszentmihalyi may suggest that a simple reframing of the situation should remedy the dissatisfaction and lead to flow states; however, Self-determination Theory (SDT) would claim that a truly optimal experience cannot be realized when a person perceives they are working for external causes (Ryan & Deci, 2000). In fact, mental and physical well-being may be jeopardized should an individual continually invest energy into a job that does not fulfill genuine intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000), even though temporary positive experiences may exist.
With Gallup polls reporting only a third of the US workforce being engaged (Harter, 2018), Csikszentmihalyi’s argument that one can achieve an optimal experience through an attitude adjustment seems far-fetched. While flow states may exist in sub-optimal conditions, corporate culture, job-design, and appropriate job placement would likely illicit flow states more often and a truly optimal experience.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York: HarperCollins.
Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
Harmat, L., Andersen, F. O., Ullen, F., Wright, J., & Sadlo, G. (2016). Flow Experience Empirical Research and Applications. Basel, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.
Harter, J. (2018, August 26). Employee Engagement on the Rise in the U.S. Retrieved from Gallup: https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/empl…
Huljich, P. (2012, September 27). Identifying Coping Mechanisms. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/…
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.