Play and Flow
September 04, 2019 by John Andrew Williams
The model theorized that play is fun when your skill in the game is matched with the challenge of the game. The result is that you can act without thinking, propelled from moment to moment by a sense of timelessness, intrinsic focus, and total enjoyment. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi then designed a study to actually test the 1971 conceptual model for play. He had a hunch that that flowing cognitive state might be possible for people doing other things too, like working hard to build athletic stamina or master music theory. He wanted to show what caused it.
He had been right – the results suggested that the flowing cognitive state was not unique to play. It might be possible for people performing a wide variety of activities. The recipe was simple: when your ability to do something is balanced with the level of challenge required for doing it, you flow. Flow is a product of human biology and psychology: a process that happens in our brains to facilitate learning and adaptation. You could almost say Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered flow just like Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix. It was significant, and this 1975 paper opened the Pandora’s Box of positive psychology research.
- In 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi operationalized the theory of flow by designing a study to reveal what makes play so enjoyable. The study used in-depth, semi-structured interviews to generate detailed qualitative data from participants. The interviews focused on participants’ mental states during games they played or recreational activities they dedicated themselves to.
- Csikszentmihalyi and a team of graduate students interviewed 55 chess players, 30 modern dancers, 30 composers, 30 rock climbers, and 30 basketball players. Each group was interviewed by a graduate student who knew a lot about that particular activity. To look for patterns that might go further beyond play activities, the team also interviewed surgeons, school teachers, and classical music aficionados.
- Published in 1975, the results provide real world evidence of the flow theory. Flow emerged clearly as a theme from this interview data and fit closely with the conceptual model for play that Csikszentmihalyi and Bennet developed in 1971. Flow happens when a human being is engaged in an activity where their personal skill level is well-matched with an external challenge. It is a mental state when a human is functioning at fullest learning capacity, receiving and incorporating feedback to adapt in real time. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the feeling when something is so inherently enjoyable that you keep doing it for the sake of doing it, without any promise of a reward from anyone or anywhere else, just because you love how it makes you feel. And, you don’t actually think about the fact that you love it to keep you going. You just go.
- This was the first study that demonstrated flow through real data from real people. The interview participants clearly described experiencing a cognitive state when their skills were well-matched with challenging activities. Consistently, they described concentrating so deeply they lost their sense of time, feeling unquestionably in control of their actions, not worrying about failure, losing all sense of self-consciousness, and feeling like their whole self was totally immersed in the activity. These feelings describe flow, which “We experience…as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future,” (p. 137).
- The flow theory also provides a structure to assess human cognitive states during any activity. The flow experience is ultimately a relationship between your skill and an activity, where your skill and the activity are well-matched. So, the theory can describe the mental experiences of other ratios between skills and challenges. Csikszentmihalyi suggests, for example, that when a challenge is far higher than your skill level to perform it, you will experience anxiety. On the other hand, you may experience boredom if your skill level is much higher than what the activity requires of you.
- This paper is responsible for launching decades of research on flow and positive psychology. The original paper alone has been cited 1,106 times, but most publications cite it as a chapter in Csikszentmihalyi’s 2000 book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. 11,689 scholarly publications have cited the book to date.
- As a child during WWII in Europe, Csikszentmihalyi was imprisoned in an Italian internment camp and learned to play chess. He noticed that his focus during the game helped him cope better than others did in the negative environment of the camp. After hearing Carl Jung speak as a teenager, Csikszentmihalyi reflected: “As a child in the war I’d seen something drastically wrong with how adults—the grown-ups I trusted—organized their thinking. I was trying to find a better system to order my life. Jung seemed to be trying to cope with some of the more positive aspects of human experience,” (Cherry 2018). He moved to the U.S. and became a psychologist.
- As an early career psychologist at the University of Chicago in 1971, Csikszentmihalyi worked with Smith Bennet to propose a theory of play. They hypothesized that the cognitive state of play happens when someone’s skills are well-matched with an activity. They defined play as “action generating action: a unified experience flowing from one moment to the next,” (Csikszentmihalyi and Bennet 1971, p. 45, emphasis mine).
- Csikszentmihalyi decided to test this hypothesis. Previous experimental research on play had looked at it as a mechanism for some other goal, like reducing anxiety or improving cognitive processing. But, Csikszentmihalyi recognized that play is unique because it is intrinsically motivating – people keep doing it because it rewards them. So, he designed a study to ask the simple question of why play is fun, and whether people could experience a similar cognitive state doing something else like working. He thought the answer to these questions might unlock a really important aspect of positive human functioning.
- He chose participants who played a lot. To really get at play, Csikszentmihalyi selected participants that spent the bulk of their free time in play activities – modern dancers, chess players, and basketball players. He also included participants that spent a lot of time doing something that wasn’t necessarily play, but seemed to keep them deeply engaged – music composers, rock climbers, explorers, gamblers, and marathon swimmers.
- Csikszentmihalyi and his graduate students conducted more than 175 interviews. First, they did pilot interviews with members of several activity groups to refine their standard interview questionnaire. Then, they conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 music composers, 30 male and 25 female chess players, 30 rock climbers, 30 basketball players, and 30 modern dancers. A semi-structured interview follows the outline of the standard questionnaire, but allows an interviewer to probe deeper into the topics that seem worth exploring. This method generates very refined, detailed data.
- The research team processed and analyzed the data. The interviews were recorded and transcribed into text documents. Then, the researchers coded the data by identifying themes, or common ideas, across the interviews. They cross-referenced these themes with the conceptual model of play that Csikszentmihalyi and Bennet proposed in 1971. The experiences of strictly play participants like chess and basketball players aligned with the experiences of people engaged in other highly skilled activities like rock climbing and music composition.
- Csikszentmihalyi published this 1975 paper first proposing the flow theory with empirical evidence to support it. He suggested that the flow experience requires flow activities, but that flow does not equate to play as he had proposed along with Bennet in 1971. Flow is more. Play might be the most common type of flow experience, but people can experience flow during a variety of structured experiences.
Cherry, K. 2018. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Biography: Early Life, Career, and Contributions to Psychology. Verywell Mind, History and Biographies. https://www.verywellmind.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-biography-2795517.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Bennet, S. An Exploratory Model of Play. 1971. American Anthropologist 73(1): pp. 45-58. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1971.73.1.02a00040
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1975. Play and Intrinsic Rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 15(3): pp. 41-63. https://doi.org/10.1177/002216787501500306
Elkin, L. 2003. Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix. Physics Today 56(3): p. 42. https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.1570771
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