The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Book Review

Found in: Miscellany & Merriment, Reviews

Mihaly reading his book ‘Flow’

War is horrific. There’s no getting away from it. But sometimes out of the horror there’s a contribution to the world that wouldn’t be here otherwise.

Such is the life’s work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The study of what he has come to define as ‘flow’.

Here we have the enquiring mind of a young man watching the extreme impacts, amongst the adults around him, of World War 2, described in his TED talk. And as a result, he pursues ways people can be happy.

After searching many modalities and pathways to happiness his reading of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist appears to be a major turning point.

Flow by Mihaly Csikzsentmihalyi

In his book, Csikszentmihalyi uses exhaustive science-based data to arrive at his theory of flow. To obtain his data, he uses wider mechanisms than merely interview technique after the fact. One major strategy is the use of electronic pagers which go off ten times per day. Set questions are asked of the interviewees – what are they doing? How do they feel, what are they thinking? What is the level of challenge regarding the skills needed for the task in which they are engaged?

For more on his data, check the previously mentioned TED talk, from 15.0 onwards.

Part of his proposition is to challenge the commonly held notion that happiness comes from relaxing and merely stopping what gives stress.


Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow: Each is explained carefully and worth the time spent delving into his examples and explorations. So, the following list is merely a taster.

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.
Unmani with 2 students in a shared lesson

During my thirteen years as a Simply Music teacher, I have had many occasions to observe all of these eight factors in high relief, because of the carefully crafted brilliance of the method. I see transformations in front of my own eyes. In the past week a busy adult student who runs her own business shared with others at a musical event run by the studio that she sometimes sits down and improvises using chords and suddenly hours have gone by. Time has transformed for her, ‘actions and awareness are merged’, and her life is enriched because of it.

Point six mentions a balance between challenge and skills. Having immersed myself, passionately and professionally for years in other music teacher modalities such as Orff Schulwerk and Kodaly education, I am now privileged to deliver a program that builds and borrows from itself steadily and oh so carefully and the students recognise it. Often on a weekly basis as they progress into the program a light bulb will go off and they realise they learnt a particular skill already somewhere else in their Simply Music journey.

In a world of the future with challenges such as climate change, where new technologies will demand our ethical response, involvement and proactivity, and where there’s increasing leisure time, the principles of ‘flow’ as applied to an activity such as music, and musical creativity could be crucial for humanity.

In summary, what was great about this book?

  • The detail, the clear explanations of each point. There’s no ‘mickey mouse’ one liners here!
  • The idea of ‘fun’ is alluded to often e.g., ’life can be more fun this way….’.
  • Where the human body and ‘flow’ are discussed, he doesn’t shy away delicately from including the topic of ‘sex’ which is sometimes over looked where discussions of the of the body are concerned.
  • There are individual stories from ordinary and extraordinary lives.
  • This is really an excellent guide for living and happiness and yes LOTS of references to music and creativity.
  • There’s also reference to assembly line workers and sports people in flow, and being in flow in seemingly dull activities such as a dentist’s waiting room or in a stalled traffic situation. He cites an example of an assembly line worker, doing an extremely onerous repetitive task finding creative ways to be happy by challenging herself. Can she do things faster? More efficiently?


What could be better?

  • I found myself wondering, where are the answers to the place of emotions in his oeuvre?
  • What impact in Csikszentmihalyi‘s world, does having a good ‘cry’, or safe expression of anger or other catharsis that is real for the body have on ‘flow’?
  • How does a depressed person get ‘out of themselves’ enough to even begin?
  • There’s lots of ‘doing’ advice. Is it just another formulaic ‘do this, do that’ and you’ll be happy? A ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ type tome? He does mention that the only benefit will be when the advice is put into action. But, how are we guided to actually just simply stop what gets in the way to attain what could come naturally? So that it ‘droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven’, as it were. He does reference the ‘flowing’ play of children. But we know children didn’t read books to get to this place. The composers that are mentioned – how did they attain these capacities or did they simply not have what gets in the way like the rest of us?

When reflecting from my own life, while preparing this review, I was reminded of a time when I had experienced this phenomena of ‘flow’.

I was hired to play the piano for a war anniversary dinner in the local town. It was a men’s ‘Beef and Burgundy’ club, so they were well fed and watered. During dinner, I played the standard songs popular during both world wars. After dinner they gathered around the piano and asked for songs. It was pre-Simply Music days for me, but I must have had some innate sense of the I IV V’s and just played by ear whatever they wanted. (Fortunately, they were songs I had heard all my life) The next thing I remember is, after maybe starting at 11 pm, that it was 2 in the morning. I had gone crazy, let go and the time went somewhere.

I only remember full throated singing from the blokes around me and wonderful time being had by all. I was definitely in flow.

If in your own life moment to moment, you wish to take the time to look a little deeper for enrichment and purpose, and maybe consider embarking on a ‘grand passion’ (such as perhaps music) this book is well worth a read.

Unmani, Simply Music Teacher