Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm a little disheartened to learn that Csikszentmihalyi has gone on to become "the world's foremost producer of personal development and motivational audio programs," because that makes his work sound like exactly the kind of self-help bullshit that he says, in Flow
, doesn't do any good. But I can see where, from what he wrote in 1990, he could have become a proselytizer for his theory, and, yeah, that is going to lead you into "personal development" and similar dreadful sounding things.
Csikszentmihalyi's theory may not be everybody's dish of tea, and the stronger he comes on the more nervous he makes me, but nevertheless I found this book extremely illuminating and helpful, as it explained to me something about myself that I've noticed for years without having the words to describe.
Csikszentmihalyi says that what makes people happy are activities which have (a) clear goals, (b) clear rules, (c) clear challenges that are neither too difficult (leading to frustration) nor too easy (leading to boredom). He points out that for all we have been socially conditioned to prize unstructured leisure time in which to do nothing (i.e., watch TV), it provides only passive pleasure and does not actually make anyone happy
. Unless, of course, you turn your TV into an activity that involves what he calls "flow," which is a possibility that doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He says that people who are good at "flow" (what most athletes call being "in the zone") are able to create these activities for themselves out of jobs that other people find boring or in fact out of boredom itself. He cites the charming example of Herr Doktor Meier-Leibnitz (yes, a descendant of the Leibnitz who was Newton's rival), who invented a complicated finger-tapping pattern game to amuse himself during boring conference presentation. Not only does this game alleviate his boredom without taking away too much of his attention, it allows him, because he knows how long it takes him to go through an iteration, to time how long a problem-solving train of thought lasts. Csikszentmihalyi says that these criteria for flow activities remain the same across differences of class, race, nationality, sex, and age, and that people describe the feeling of "flow" in ways that are recognizably the same, whether they are blind Italian nuns or teenage Japanese gang members.
And it explains to me my fondness for translation, for algebra, for crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and all kinds of puzzle-solving games, for rock climbing (several of his interview subjects are rock climbers), and for dressage, because--as widely disparate as they are when considered as activities--they all meet Csikszentmihalyi's criteria for "flow." I can even recognize that I have invented a flow activity out of my day job, which explains a great deal why I like it.
And I can see that writing used to be a flow activity, but that I've somehow lost the unconscious ability to set goals, so that now I veer wildly between "I've done this before, the puzzle is solved" (boredom), or "omg this is impossible, I'll never be able to do it" (frustration and despair). And Csikszentmihalyi gives me objective guidelines that show
what's gone wrong and that offer, if not a solution, at least an avenue of exploration more promising than I've had in a while.
And I appreciate the way that he points out that activities we undertake for their own sake, not because we "ought" to or because they will make us "successful," are the activities we find most enjoyable and most enriching, and thus the activities that are actually more likely to bring us a feeling of satisfaction and success--and more likely to produce poetry, art, music, scientific breakthroughs, etc. He gives a quote from one of his respondents, someone who is both a rock-climber and a poet, which I have added to my collection of quotes that I keep around my desk where they will provide a sanity check: "The act of writing justifies poetry."
I do, yes, find him a little smug, and his understanding of evolution is woefully unnuanced and kind of wrong--not surprising for someone who coined the term "autotelic" to describe people who create flow out of the materials to hand. He is decidedly a teleological thinker who sees evolution as a steady advance toward more complex and therefore better and therefore humans are the current pinnacle of evolution and must take their own evolution in their autotelic hands to make the species advance rather than stagnate or regress. So take his somewhat megalomaniacal concluding chapter with a liberal application of salt, but if you recognize yourself in anything I've said, you might want to give Flow
a look.View all my reviews