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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) Paperback – July 1, 2008
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You have heard about how a musician loses herself in her music, how a painter becomes one with the process of painting. In work, sport, conversation or hobby, you have experienced, yourself, the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity. This is "flow," an experience that is at once demanding and rewarding--an experience that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates is one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences a person can have. The exhaustive case studies, controlled experiments and innumerable references to historical figures, philosophers and scientists through the ages prove Csikszentmihalyi's point that flow is a singularly productive and desirable state. But the implications for its application to society are what make the book revolutionary. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Elegantly written...it is more relevant than ever" The Times "Mr Csikszentmihalyi illuminates the accuracy of what philosophers have been saying for centuries: that the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism but in mindful challenge" The New York Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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We're told that "psychic entropy" (or lack of control over conciseness, or simply random thoughts), is the thing that prevents happiness. Flow, on the other hand, is "optimal experience", the reverse of psychic entropy. Actually, this scale from psychic entropy to flow *is* the measure of happiness. Then, the book gives some conditions for achieving flow -- basically finding tasks that are challenging enough, but not too much, together with unambiguous and fast feedback (I found that part somewhat vague). And there's a lot of examples of flow experiences. Everything can become flow, if challenges are sought and overcome. Every chapter fits into a solid book structure.
But it's not clear the structure makes sense. Yes, being engaged in activity at proper challenge level can be very rewarding. Is it an answer for everything? Is unhappiness indeed the same as psychic entropy? Maybe if one cannot concentrate on anything at all, yes, but hardly in all cases. Is suppressing distressing thoughts by finding a random engaging experience the best approach? No matter what that experience is? True, the book does mention that some flow experiences are not necessary good, but then goes on giving a lot of examples of flow, regardless of their value. If I'm constantly bothered by a bunch of unresolved problems, would it be wise to go and find some flow experience, to suppress the thoughts about these problems? Maybe find flow in washing dishes? Even if I manage to get very very engaged in that, will I feel a slightest bit better afterwards?
The book was originally published in 1990, and it shows. I found no mention of Daniel Kahneman' concept of experiencing self and remembering self, which means that no matter how pleasurable flow might be in the moment, it is only one part of the story (see "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). There's no mention of Daniel Gilbert, who claims that people mostly stay at their baseline happiness level, and so expending great effort to become happier is probably a mistake (see "Stumbling on Happiness"). Instead, we find some favorable mentions of Mr. Freud, for the first time in all the books I read.
Flow is probably an important part of good life experience, and this book is important in giving examples of flow. But equating flow with happiness is very controversial, and too much of the book is based on that equality.
The book Flow describes that there is a mental state in which human performance reaches excellence. This state features some interesting aspects, of which the most important is concentration. When a human being reaches this state, time seems to stop, enjoyment is superlative and self-consciousness disappears, as if one reached the state of communion with some deity. This state is what the author denominates “flow”.
By reading this book, I learned to call this state this way, which I think is very appropriate. Everyone of us have experienced flow at some point in our lives. When this happens, whatever we are doing can be qualified as excellent. In my own experience, I have been surprised by my own performance in some tasks throughout my life once I concluded them. I have had some brilliant moments on rare occasions and I can say that the main attribute in all of them has been good concentration.
Timothy Gallwey’s books deal precisely about that concentration and the interaction among our different selves that affect such focus. When concentration is maximized, incredible things usually happen. Human greatness rests precisely in its capacity to stay in the “flow” state which let humans conquer goals that would seem incredible by any observer.
The “flow” state is the state to which everyone should aspire in every moment of his or her existence. If that cannot be done, it is due to the attachments that block them. Such attachments need to be minimized in order to reach this state.
It would seem strange that such issue deserves so much attention: increase in human performance. But whenever we try it, we realize that excellence in performance provides great happiness. But such happiness is not the result of the pride of having reached a goal, but of having been concentrated for a moment. When we are focused in something and reach the “flow” state, we realize that that is the goal of our existence, at least during that moment.
After all, ancient Greeks institutionalized Olympic Games for a reason: they were searching not excellence in entertainment, but rather excellence in concentration. On the same token, eastern experts who practice martial arts reach excellence only after the subject is able to enjoy a profound spirituality at the moment of combat. This means that pinpointed focus is what lets humans relate with their creator. This may not relate very well with traditional Christian doctrine, but oriental religions seem to follow this statement. At any rate, even Christian religions go a long way dealing about taming the self (temptations, mental vices, pride, etc.); what they deal with is liberating people of whatever distracts them from living their lives with excellence, even in the most trivial daily activities. In other words, religion tries to each happiness and in order to do that, humans need to do whatever is necessary to reach the flow state. This is not easy since in order to conquer trust and tranquility it is necessary to live a good life. Whatever that means depends on every soul. And the field in which the flow state should be reached also depends on every person.
In think the "flow" state is related to an important concept that was discussed at length in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and which is named "quality". This concept is much more than what we usually mean by it, since although it has something to do with excellence, its effect on human lives has much to do with his or her happiness and transcendence. In that book, "quality" is not only explained, but also demonstrated through philosophies established throughout several centuries. Therefore its reading, although dense, is extremely interesting.
But this book (Flow) goes a long way to explain this term in a sensible manner and using examples from daily life that everyone of us can relate to. In fact, while reading this book, there were some instances in which the author used examples from his personal life, explained through several pages just to prove a small point. I wished he did not use so many examples just to keep me from losing the main point.
However, the flow concept is very important and I am grateful that someone went a long way to put it accesible and in simple terms. We cannot say that the way to happiness is the same for everybody, but definitely all those ways have a common ingredient: the "flow" state.