Today’s book review is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I first came across the concept of Flow in my previous job, where it was presented to us as a concept that will help you manage people better – that you should try and manage people so that they were in a state of “flow” as often as possible – being stretched so that they are learning, but not so much that what they were doing was too hard.
But the concept is much more than that. To quote from the introduction:
“We have all experienced times 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….. moments like these are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Before buying the book, I found it difficult to work out how you could write a whole book about this one, fairly simple, concept. But it is an engaging book, packed with information and new ways of thinking about life. Csikszentmihalyi has spent his professional life researching happiness, and his conclusions have led him to believe (with considerable evidence) that most people are happiest at these times when they are stretching themselves to achieve something.
The conditions for the ideal flow activities are that they provide a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. They push the person into higher levels of performance, and lead to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. They transform the self by making it more complex. In turn that means that the activity needs to continue to grow and become more complex so that it continues to provide the growth and challenge to make it meaningful. Csikszentmihalyi sets out four major components of an activity that will tend to make it enjoyable
we are confronting tasks we have a chance of completing
we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing
there are clear goals
there is immediate feedback
and then what it will feel like
we have deep and effortless involvement that takes us away from everyday life
we will have a sense of control over our actions
concern for the self disappears, but emerges stronger after the experience is over
the sense of duration of time is altered, so that hours can pass by in minutes
To achieve the state of flow, it is not enough to be challenged by something. You need to be giving all of yourself to it – so that you are deeply involved in the activity. Conversely, an activity does not need to be seem by society at large as worthy, or difficult, for a person to achieve flow from it. Those who have been imprisoned for long periods in difficult circumstances have achieved flow from the unlikeliest of activities, through consciously setting themselves goals and challenges.
The book goes on to describe all the different ways in which people have achieved flow throughout the centuries, and how much of music, art, literature and religion can be viewed through a lens which suggests that they are all ways in which the human race tries to formalise ways in which flow can be achieved more easily.
The two sections which I found most thought provoking were those on amateurs and professionals, and the chapter on work. Csikszentmihalyi describes the common way in which professionals in any field tend to look down on hobbyists (he prefers to call them amateurs, given the root of the word comes from those who love what they do). Someone who is constantly challenging themselves and learning something new, even in a part time way, and even not as well as a professional could do is achieving much better personal growth than someone who is a professional but hasn’t learned anything in the last ten years. Certainly that section made me rethink the way I react to people with hobbies that I find deadly dull or that they aren’t very good at. And for my main hobby, blogging – well it certainly fits as a flow activity for me. What I’ve realised, though, is that I should spend more time commenting (harder work, but more rewarding) than passively reading my feedreader. It’ll probably improve the experience.
But the big challenge for me was the chapter on work. Csikszentmihalyi’s research (in which he asked people randomly throughout their day to write down what they were doing, and how happy they were) showed that people are most likely to achieve a flow state (in a fairly liberal interpretation of having a higher than average level of challenge and using more skills than average) while they were working than not working. But when they were working (even in that state), they were more likely to wish they were doing something else.
I’m sure I would have been one of those people – enjoying what I was doing at work, but wishing I was somewhere else. This chapter has made me think harder about what about my work gets me to that flow state, and what I can do in my non work life to match the flow experiences I undeniably get at work. I’ve been wishing for a while that I could work four days a week, rather than five, because I don’t feel I’m getting enough time for myself at the moment. But perhaps what I should be doing instead, is working towards changing my work so that more of it is about being in a flow state, and it feels like time for myself. It has the advantage of possibly being more achievable.
So my reactions have probably made clear that I found this book captivating. I will be re-reading it every year or so, I expect.