Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience


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I have always wondered, why it is that some people enjoy a happy and creative life while others seem to find themselves settling into a comfortable but frustrating rut? What does the former have that the latter doesn't?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow has the answer. In his book, Mihaly argues that in our increasingly anxious, distracted lives, we can become too focused on external rewards and opinions (for example, by compulsively comparing ourselves with our peers).

As a much-needed remedy, Mihaly offers techniques that enable us to focus on inner rewards, which can lead us to engage in our own interests so totally that we enter a state of pure flow. In such a state, Mihaly says, we simply don’t care about external rewards like power or wealth and we don’t even consider the opinions of others.

Following years of research, Flow also taps into ancient wisdom, philosophy and modern psychology to provide countless examples of people who discovered how to “get into the zone,” and thus lead contented lives and do their best work.

For instance, the book states that many scientists did some of their most revolutionary work in their spare time. It tells the story of why a surgeon or millionaire footballer might be deeply bored, while a factory worker finds delight is all he does. You’ll also learn why going to jail can help you discover your goals and strengthen your resolve – as it did for Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela – Not that I would suggest going to that length. And, finally, you’ll see how being more mindful of your surroundings can also help you enjoy the small things in life.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Satisfaction with life doesn’t correlate strongly with being wealthy.

  2. We choose instant gratification (pleasure) as compensation for the daily grind of our lives. instead of the more rewarding, yet more difficult to attain, enjoyment.

  3. We need to seek Flow (To be in the Zone). This immersion in the task that we see is so powerful it can release us from our self-consciousness,

If you are dissatisfied at work or bored and unhappy at home, this book will shake you up and drive you to make the most of your limited time on this planet.

Mihaly states that we live in luxurious times and people from the past wouldn’t believe the conveniences that modern life provides. But having more money and acquiring more stuff doesn’t seem to make us happier. As one study in the book shows, satisfaction with life doesn’t correlate strongly with being wealthy. You don’t need to look far to see evidence of this: just think about the number of rich patients that psychiatrists treat regularly.

So in order to give our lives meaning, we try to change the environment around us, whether by displaying our wealth to impress others or chasing powerful positions. Yet these all fail to sustain our happiness.

Pleasures or Enjoyment.

On a daily basis, most of us choose instant gratification as compensation for the daily grind of our lives. This is because we favour simple pleasure over the more rewarding, yet more difficult to attain, enjoyment.

Pleasure provides simple satisfaction; much like sleeping or eating: we have evolved so that when our blood sugar is low, we feel hungry and are urged to eat something. Enjoyment, on the other hand, involves us stretching ourselves, using our skills and concentration to transcend the apparent limitations of our genes. In this way, enjoyment helps us to accomplish ambitious goals that we set for ourselves and enables us to gain control over our attention.

Mihaly gives an example of a meal that we are preparing and never have made before. The patience and the willingness to experiment that this task requires contributes to the development of a sophisticated palate, which enables us to savour every bite.

Nevertheless, Mihaly states; it’s pleasure, not enjoyment, that we seem to prefer, often in the form of pain-free escapism and hedonism. Yet these lack novelty and the opportunity for growth. For example, after a hard day’s work, many of us sit watching TV, films or videos. This state of pure consumption is when we are at our most passive and easily distracted.

Furthermore, on the weekends, many of us unwind with alcohol or even other drugs. While these may ‘promise’ relaxation or an expanded consciousness, the result is often that we damage our ability to concentrate and we lose control.

The storylines of TV programs and the ‘artificial paradise’ of alcohol or drugs both require external stimulation, while neither allows us to exert skill or to focus fully on our goals. Our minds often don’t do what they can to achieve growth or complexity, but we shouldn’t take the path of least resistance and most distraction.

In The Zone

Across different languages and cultures, people use the same terms to describe what they feel when they are “in the zone.” This feeling is one of enjoyment rather than pleasure and it comes when you are engaged in a task or activity that balances skills and challenges, has clear goals and immediate feedback.

Being ‘in the zone’ means that you’re totally immersed in the task at hand. This combines action and awareness, which gives you a feeling of control. Take rock climbers, for example. Obviously, they face extreme danger in their goals, but what they enjoy is using their expertise to push through their fears – for instance, by accurately estimating the difficulty of a climb. To do this, they have to devote their full attention to the task.

This immersion in the task that we see is so powerful it can release us from our self-consciousness, worries and anxieties and allow us to lose track of time. Indeed, the rock climber focuses so deeply on the intricacies of the rock face that he forgets his problems as they become ‘one with the mountain’.

Developing New Skills

One morning in Naples, a US tourist walked into an antique store and asked to buy a sculpture. The owner quoted a steep figure, yet when he saw the tourist was about to pay he claimed the sculpture wasn’t for sale. Why? He quoted the high price not because he wanted to exploit the tourist, but rather because he enjoyed bargaining and the battle of wits it involves, as it sharpened his mental dexterity and his selling skills.

Whenever we engage in something like this – something that’s neither too easy nor too difficult – we tend to expand our personal limits and achieve more. For example, if you’re a beginner at tennis, you’ll first simply enjoy trying to hit the ball over the net. As you improve, this easy challenge will start to bore you and you’ll start looking for ways to further challenge yourself – probably by playing against another person.

If you choose an opponent who’s far more skilled than you are, you’ll soon begin to feel out of your depth and anxious. Because the challenge is so difficult, you may even give up the chance to acquire new skills. But if you choose an opponent who’s just above your skill level, your skills may actually improve.

Improvement also requires, however, that these skills be aligned with personal goals and passions and remain unaffected by external circumstances such as the promise of a reward if you do well, or the threat of punishment if you don’t.

With discipline, we can use our senses and movements to help us tune into a heightened state of awareness.

For most of us, the idea of paying attention to our walking is an unusual one. Walking simply gets us from A to B. But by paying attention to the variety of sights around you – the people, their interactions, historical relics, architecture and so on – even the most routine actions, such as walking, can be transformed. By practising mindfulness of our surroundings, we can learn to perceive much more than our automatic response to the world allows.

Indeed, the world is ripe for inspiration. Being mindful of the wonders around us allows us to feel connected to the world and to see things in a new light.

Work that you treat like a game, with intrinsic rewards and varied skills, ceases to be “work.”

Mihaly mentions that many people are dissatisfied with their daily routines and often their jobs are to blame. What makes matters worse is that their leisure time is spent recovering from their work in the laziest way – watching TV, sleeping etc. However, work can be developed into something that provides a challenge, focuses our attention and reduces our anxieties.

Many people have described themselves as more often being in a flow-like state when they were working than when they weren’t. They also reported an increased belief in their own creativity and concentration.

One way of getting into a flow state is to set yourself intrinsic rewards (that is, ones not motivated by cash incentives or extrinsic power), such as trying to surpass your usual performance level or learning as much as possible about the job.

Therefore, to get into a state of flow you should seek out new challenges in work, aiming to learn as much as possible about all of the essential tasks involved in keeping your company running, rather than just clocking in and clocking out.

Engaging with family, friends and community is vital for our happiness, self-expression and growth.

Good families provide honest feedback, unconditional acceptance and long-term goals. Families that are conducive to enjoyable experiences are both differentiated, accepting each family member’s distinct skills and traits for what they are, and integrated – being honest, fair to everyone and neglecting no one.

Mihaly gives an example of parents who take part in challenging, skilful tasks like carpentry or cooking rather than TV-watching or drinking are more likely to see their children try to emulate these positive traits. We also require good friendships, as these are essential for strengthening our expressive side. The skills we have are either instrumental, like survival and professional skills, or expressive, communicating our personalities clearly. Compared with being alone, spending time with friends nurtures our expressive side: it produces much higher levels of happiness, self-esteem, strength and motivation – not to mention providing an audience.

Focused attention distances us from our anxiety, helping us to gain perspective and find new ways to grow.

We’re all faced with misfortune at some time or other. Rather than simply giving up because we feel unable to handle the situation, we could employ the following three strategies:

  1. We should let go of our egos and trust in our ability to handle situations as they arise.

  2. We should practice being mindful of our environment.

  3. Instead of giving up in the face of difficult situations, you should use them to discover novel solutions.

Discover purpose in life through having unified goals and the resolve to put them into action.

As earth is not the centre of the universe and our lives are manipulated by our genes, life can seem bereft of ultimate meaning. Yet we can certainly create meaning and the beauty of this is that each of us can choose what that meaning is. To find your meaning you need an ultimate goal in life to focus on. The end goal is irrelevant, as long as it immerses you fully in increasingly complex challenges, allowing you to disregard others’ opinions.

Once you’ve established your goal, you have to act on it and for this you need strong intentions and resolutions. It’s all too easy to conceive of some life goal yet never realize it. Indeed, many people remain “armchair activists,” procrastinating by writing endless to-do lists.

Finally, your goals and resolutions should be harmonious, expressing a life theme. One person who mastered this was Malcolm X. He grew up in poverty, dealt drugs and went to jail. It was there that he discovered reading and reflection and gained the self-knowledge which drove his resolve, to become a civil rights activist and improve the lives of others. Just imagine where we’d be without such clear goals and strong resolve. Would we be capable of fighting deadly diseases, crafting masterpieces or walking on the moon?

What I took from it...

To live an optimal life, try not to be influenced by external rewards or the opinions of others. You can attain enjoyment in life by focusing your attention on every moment, being mindful of your environment and immersing yourself in your interests. You should also never avoid facing difficult challenges, as they can lead to personal growth and achievement.

Learn more about your job. Set yourself a challenge to learn as much as possible about your job, accept opportunities for new tasks and work better and faster than you have before. Not only will this lead to less procrastination but the time will pass much more quickly. You’ll also become more popular with colleagues and you may even be offered a promotion, but don’t let these be your central motivations. Also to turn off the TV and get creative.

Instead of watching TV or movies in the evening, engage with your friends, partner or community and challenge yourself. Plan your weekend activities. If you lose yourself in salsa dancing, stand-up comedy, seminars, outdoor adventures, book clubs etc, you can improve your confidence and elevate your conversations beyond the usual small talk and chit-chat.

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