I first read this book back in 1997. Recently, during the Chicago Chapter IDSA quarterly book read and review, I was informed that “Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, was the book in review. I thought “what a great re-read.” I did not want to re-read this book for what I got out if it the first time. I wanted to re-read this book NOT for the flow of mind where one learns from a scientific point of view about one losing himself in flow and thought. NOT to simply re affirm flow with examples like how a painter becomes one with the process of painting or how a runner loses herself when running. The optimal experience as this book points out is the essence of happiness. This psychology is all very interesting to industrial designers and product engineers. I wanted to re-read it from the perspective of a designer.

While this is not a self-help book, it does just that. Mihaly makes it clear and articulates his points backed scientifically with what we already know to be true. In work, sport, conversation or hobby, you as a designer have experienced the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity. Now with this re-read I wanted to see if from a designers perspective one could think about design of products that help us reach optimal experiences. Usually when we design products we think of shape and form. We think of functionality. By studying the physiology of conciseness we might be able to design next generation products that engage or enable consumers to achieve optimal experiences. Though, one designer pointed out in his review that it is easy to re-affirm what designers already understand. To him, the book only pointed out basic observations that he as a designer already has a sense for.

The author’s writing style is concise and he is able to articulate complex ideas in a simple and understandable manner. In chapter three, the author writes about enjoyment and the quality of life: “In a healthy culture, productive work and necessary routines of everyday life are also satisfying. In fact, one purpose of this book is to explore ways in which even routine details can be transformed into personally meaningful games that provide optimal experiences”.

Not for money, fame, or reward, but for the enrichment of life with enjoyable experiences that helps us obtain happiness and/or flow. The author states in the second chapter, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is something that we make happen”.

By reading this book one is enabled to apply years of scientific study to your products as well. You don’t see many profound, significant books that are, at the same time, practical to a designer. This book is one of the few. The first three chapters takes a look at our human condition and asks the question, ‘How can I enjoy life?’ The rest of the book is an answer to that question. And the author is not being philosophical. He answers the question scientifically complete with examples. He’s done an unusual kind of research for about 35 years, strapping pagers on thousands of people. The pagers go off randomly during the day and the volunteers stop what they’re doing and fill out a questionnaire measuring their mood, their level of involvement in what they’re doing, etc. He’s gotten more than 100,000 of these snapshots of people’s lives and discovered a state of mind he calls “flow.” He tells you what conditions are the most conducive to creating a state of flow.

To overcome these obstacles or to obtain more flow situations, people search for religions, philosophies, arts, and comforts as the author pointed out. I noticed once at lunch while visiting a major manufacturer, employees were playing solitaire at work. Initially, I thought “those people waste such precious time on such a miniscule game.” Yet now after reading this book I understand that those employees were simply allowing themselves to experience Flow. They were honing their thinking skills. They were balanced by experiencing flow. The ability to achieve “optimal experience” is tightly linked to the ability to focus on fulfilling personally determined goals.

One interesting comment found in the book makes me think in a perspective related to product design. “Surrounded by an astounding panoply of recreational gadgets and leisure choices, most of us go on being bored and vaguely frustrated.” All of us will spend our lives searching for happiness and try to remain in the “Flow” as our inane natural human desire. One diagram in chapter four indicates the flow channel as a function of anxiety versus boredom. To stay in the flow one must be challenged so the activity is not boring. Yet not with overwhelming challenges that can create anxiety. This blend of skills and challenges is just one example of how designers and engineers will value this read.

In conclusion, as an effort to get designers and engineers to read this book, let me mention that the author interestingly comments not only on the pursuit of happiness but also references culture and society. He makes many references and examples that gets the reader thinking. This is one of those books that will make you take notes as you read. The author references historical figures, philosophers, and scientists with excellent examples. I found fascinating the authors compelling arguments about the functioning of the human mind and spirit. He mentions joy, creativity, government, chaos, quality of childhood, goals, control, meaning, solitude, stress, anxiety, community, writing, sports, and the challenges of lifelong learning. The implications for its application to society are what makes the book revolutionary and perhaps at the front of a movement for the next big age. Read this book and let me know your thoughts

ISBN-10: 0060920432
ISBN-13: 978-0060920432

Review Written by: Bart Brejcha