Title: Flow – The psychology of optimal experience
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Year: First published 1990 (this edition 2008)
Publication: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Imagine playing your favourite video game, undertaking a challenge that uses more than 100% of your best-honed skills, or immersing yourself in a truly stimulating social environment; this state is the reality of “living in the moment”, or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-hay cheek-sent-me-hi) explains flow. These experiences, or the brief moments of ephemeral euphoria can be glanced upon by many, but mastered by very few. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi explores the notion of flow as the optimal human experience, and how such an ideal could be achieved in our everyday lives. Intrigued by this prospect, I read on. When we are presented with ideas about living in the moment, or flow, as I will now refer to it, we are often quickly bombarded with self-help guides offering various remedies to the ailments of the modern age, and answers on how to return to a simpler state of life. Through popular psychology, well-known maxims and strands of clinical psychiatry, we have become overly familiar with techniques to overcome the issues of tomorrow and the worries of the past. It was actually very refreshing to read Flow, which was largely devoid of prescriptions and instead drew on extensive psychological research and empirical studies that shed a new light on flow.
Whilst Csikszentmihalyi complied research for Flow in the late 1980’s, and published the book in 1990, his findings and illuminations are still valid, if not more relevant today than on first publication. Living in our “technological era”, we are constantly plugged into a world of real-time information, happenings and social events occurring past, present and future. Modernity and the fabric of our lives are built around a nexus of opportunities for experiencing flow, from our involvement with employment, to time spent in our domestic environments. Yet so often this is not the case in our multi-tasking culture with its many distractions, and we slip into what Csikszentmihalyi explains as psychic entropy, or subjective information that runs contrary to our intentions. Csikszentmihalyi provides a thorough analysis of the concept of flow, by first focusing on the anatomy of optimal human experience, and then investigating how flow can be achieved in each sector of individuality, from our consciousness and thoughts to how we engage with sports, music and social interactions. What became clear through Flow was (and whilst this is a commonly approved thought), that in order to experience flow, we need to form intrinsic motivation for each of our tasks and undertakings. Csikszentmihalyi, goes on to warn against the cancerous impact of placing a too great an emphasis on the immediate self, through egotism or narcissistic behaviours, and rather that we should involve our energies more deeply in our actions, so as to “lose ourselves”, with the ultimate result of developing the self through the wealth of experience afterwards.
At times, there was a danger of Flow becoming too brief in descriptions and analogies in an attempt to cover each area of our lives where we can achieve flow. However, Csikszentmihalyi managed to maintain a happy medium between over labouring sections with research and information, and skipping important details entirely. The result is an extremely accessible publication, one that gets to the heart of many of our 21st century issues. Taking the popularly covered Hierarchy of Needs by Abraham Maslow, namely the construction of “self-actualisation”, and other commonly believed theories, I strongly feel there has been a miss-match between what Western society denotes we should see as optimal experience, and the reality of living in the moment. According to Maslow (and whilst this has already been in deliberation), we can only achieve self-actualisation, or the point where we reach our full human potential after our more basic needs for food, shelter, social interaction and self-esteem are satisfied. On the contrary, Flow argues the opposite that even in our daily interactions, our work lives, no matter how menial or complex they may be, there are ample opportunities to create and live in flow.
In our modern culture, we often adopt a post-modern approach to our lives, whereby our faith lies in our own achievements, meritocracy governs our success, and the individual is king. We have been de-burdened from traditional pre-industrial work roles giving us “ultimate” freedom and control. Yet as Erich Fromm in The Fear of Freedom (1941) so succinctly argues, our modern lives have just as much potential to create chaos and psychic entropy as they do true freedom. The way we choose to spend our preciously earned free time, Csikszentmihalyi mentions, is paramount to both experiencing flow, and also creating a meaningful path of flow throughout our lives. Quoting within Flow, the American sociologist Robert Park over 80 year ago now said “It is the improvident use of our leisure, I suspect, that the greatest wastes of (American) life occurs”. By redesigning the way we choose to spend both free time, and the methods we use to construct goals and ambitions in work we can actively control the level of success we have in creating flow experiences.
Approaching Flow with a degree of scepticism, my greatest concern was that Csikszentmihalyi, whilst carefully covering each area of our lives from a psychological perspective, would in the end, reveal flow as we already know “living in the moment”, as a matter of paying more attention to the immediate time and restricting moments spent dwelling on the past or future. I was pleased to see this was not the case, with flow taking an altogether more complex position in our lives, where the psychology meets the philosophy and very the creation of meaning. Without revealing all the secrets of Flow for now, Csikszentmihalyi provides an excellent examination of what it takes to make the most of our lives, to truly control the consciousness of the mind without self-consciousness, and how to shape our work and domestic lives into flow activities brimming with meaning.