“Flow: the psychology of optimal experience”
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, paperback, published 2008 in New York
When I read it
Summer 2009, quite a lot of it in Bristol where I was beginning my SASP course (science additional specialism programme – gaining an official second specialism in chemistry after teaching A level chemistry for 4 years!)
Where I bought it
In Newark Airport, in October 2009, on the way back from a family trip to Florida. I saw it in the bookshop and, having heard of Csikszentmihalyi’s work previously, knew I had to buy it.
What it’s about
Csikszentmihalyi describes the nature of ‘enjoyment’ as opposed to ‘pleasure’ as the route to true happiness. He begins by outlining the reasons for discontent in many people’s lives – what he describes as ‘psychic entropy’ – and goes on to describe ‘optimal experiences’ as those when, “instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”
He outlines what it is that brings these experiences about. They tend not to be passive, relaxed times in ones life, but rather those 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 therefore something that we make happen.”
Csikszentmihalyi is careful to point out, early and repeatedly, that his book is not a self-help book with a recipe one can follow to achieve happinesss. As he says, “What would really satisfy people is not getting slim or rich, but feeling good about their lives. In the quest for happiness, partial solutions don’t work.” Rather, he aims to, “…give examples of how life can be made more enjoyable, ordered in the framework of a theory, for readers to reflect upon and from which they may then draw their own conclusions.”
An overview of the chapters of the book that follow the introduction:
How consciousness works, and how it is controlled
Enjoyment and the quality of life
Conditions of the flow experience
Flow through physical and sensory skills (the body in flow)
Flow through symbolic skills (the mind in flow)
Transforming jobs into flow-producing activities
Making personal relationships more enjoyable
Wayns in which people manage to enjoy life despite adversity
How people manage to join all experience into a meaningful pattern
The book contains many, many stories of individuals in a wide range of situations, from rock climbers and sailors to butchers and factory workers; from teenagers and parents to yoga masters and business executives. Csikszentmihalyi and his team used an interesting ‘experience sampling technique’ to randomly sample peoples’ everyday experiences, and this formed the basis for discovering the types of experience from which people derived the most satisfaction.
What messages I have taken from it
Flow is the optimal experience. It is worth aiming for this form of experience is as much of one’s waking life as possible – as life is short! Flow comes from conscious effort, deliberate practice, and continual awareness of one’s self and surroundings. It comes from immersing oneself entirely in tasks and activites – everything from washing up to conversation; from reading to DIY; from swimming and climbing to watching and dancing.
Pleasure and enjoyment (p45)
When considering the kind of experience that makes life better, most people first think that happiness consists in experiencing pleasure: good food, good sex, all the comforts that money can buy. We imagine the satisfaction of travelling to exotic places or being surrounded by interesting company and expensive gadgets. If we cannot afford these goals that slick commercials and colorful ads keep reminding us to pursue, then we are happy to settle for a quiet evening in front of the television set with a glass of liquor close by.
Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.
Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire, but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and has achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.
Playing a close game of tennis that stretches one’s ability is enjoyable, as is reading a book that reveals things in a new light, as is having a conversation that leads us to express ideas we didn’t now we had. Closing a contested business deal, or any piece of work well done, is enjoyable. None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we will think back on them and say, “That really was fun” and wish they would happen again. After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.
My favourite part of this passage is, “None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we will think back on them and say, “That really was fun” and wish they would happen again.”