A Brief History Of Flow Science

Written by
Steven Kotler

A Brief History Of Flow Science

Written by
Steven Kotler

A Brief History Of Flow Science

Written by
Steven Kotler

Ready for a quick look at the birth of flow science?

I promise it’ll be the flowiest history lesson you’ve ever had.


Let’s take it from the top:

After Freud’s theory of the unconscious—the idea that all behavior is driven by unconscious motives—had been dethroned by Skinner’s behaviorism—the idea that behavior is driven by past environmental reinforcement—psychologists began having a hard time explaining why people did the things they did.

The behaviorists said it all came down to need and reward. We do X to get Y.

This is now known as "extrinsic motivation."

Enter, psychologist Abraham Maslow.

For Maslow, this conclusion just didn’t sit right.

Maslow believed that there had to be something more to the story of behavior.

High achievers, Maslow came to believe, were intrinsically motivated.

They were deeply committed to testing their limits and stretching their potential.

Over time, Maslow came to realize that in stretching their potential, these high performers would frequently use bursts of intensely focused activity.

But this focused activity, Maslow also noticed, produced a significant reward of its own.

It would alter consciousness, creating experiences that were highly pleasurable, and had an almost mystical effect (William James had previously called these "mystical experiences" when studying religious folks).

Except, few of Maslow’s subjects were religious.

So, Maslow dubbed these experiences "peak experiences."

Maslow’s description of peak experiences is telling…

"During a peak experience, the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination, and empathy."

These "peak experiences," Maslow concluded, were the hidden commonality among all high achievers, the source code of intrinsic motivation.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high, Chick-sent-me-high), the former chairman of the University of Chicago Department of Psychology, arrived on the scene a few years after Maslow.

Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t just interested in high achievers, but he was curious about what motivated the average citizen.

His big question was...

"What activities produced their deepest enjoyment and greatest satisfaction?"

Surprisingly, and regardless of culture, level of modernization, age, social class, or gender, all of these people told him the same thing.

When they were at their best and felt their best was when they were experiencing sensations very similar to Maslow’s peak experiences.

As Csikszentmihalyi interviewed his subjects, to understand these optimal states of performance, they kept using the term "flow."

When everything was going right, their work was effortless, fluid and automatic. They would describe it as "flowy."

So, Csikszentmihalyi renamed Maslow’s "peak experiences," instead, calling them "flow states."

He described the flow state as:

Being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost."

And boom….

With Csikszentmihalyi flow science and research was born!

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