Mihály Csíkszentmihályi - Flow
After Simon Blackburn’s brutally abstract philosophizing, I thought it would be refreshing to return to more practical waters. But instead of books that delved deeply into a specific topic, the aim was still something comprehensive that could give a solid foundation. That’s how I ended up with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow, which is not only a universally admired “classic”, but one of the oldest items on my “must read this sometime” list.
The book summarizes the results from decades of psychological – and related – research in 10 chapters (which I took the liberty to loosely re-title):
The first four are a nice introduction to the author’s point of view, the concepts, and the necessary foundation. Then from 5 to 9, a chapter each on how to apply what we’ve just learned to the corresponding areas of our lives. Finally, 10 is a guide on how to mold these areas together into a consistent strategy for an overall happy life.
Our concept of happiness hasn’t really changed much since Aristotle. This means either that we already knew the essence of it then; or that we still don’t. Let’s hope it’s the former!
Of course, the fundamental question of happiness is still actively explored by modern psychology… The good news is that it seems to be fully up to us, so everyone has the potential to be happy. The bad news is that it seems to be fully up to us, so if we want to complain about not being happy, our first stop should be the mirror.
[Happiness] does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them.
High five for everyone whose highly sophisticated “Stoicism sense” just started tingling. Yes, that will be the main point here, too – only from a slightly different perspective.
The author’s concept of “Flow” is actually trying to capture the feeling of being “deeply immersed” in something; the feeling of “really getting into the groove”. Flow is when we are so absorbed in an activity that all external distractions fade away. All further discussion is based on scientific studies of this phenomenon and the conclusions drawn from them.
Now a few words about what this book isn’t:
We are not given step-by-step instructions for anything – we’re being taught to think correctly instead.
Things are not shrouded in mystery, so the main lessons are relatively simple and understandable.
We are not deluded into thinking it will be easy – I don’t need to belabor that simple and easy are not the same thing, do I?
If we accept these “shortcomings”, we will not be disappointed.
Stress, frustration, and always wanting more are natural human emotions. Religion, philosophy, art, traditions, and social norms have evolved as defense mechanisms against these. The problem is that these “blueprints” for preventing unhappiness are neither perfect nor permanent. It’s true that without blueprints, the situation would be even worse – blind pleasure-seeking is not the answer to anything in the long run. But it is also dangerous to rely too much on them and lull ourselves into a sense of security, because the inevitable slaps life tends to hand out will only hurt more.
The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly. It is simply indifferent.
– J. H. Holmes
So, it’s the best case scenario that the world just doesn’t give a shit about us; any external control is an illusion. But it has never been otherwise. The real problem is when there is disorder inside our heads. A striking example is that we are at once the richest, most advanced and yet most unhappy civilisation ever.
These days every household in the “first world” has access to the recipes of the feasts of past emperors. But does this make us more satisfied?
External progress simply can’t make us happy. There are plenty of statistics to show that we are declining in this respect. But in return, we can freely recognize that external hardships don’t need to make us miserable either.
What’s important is that we break free from the grip of societal norms and take responsibility for our own lives. The chapter gives many examples of how, through the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, society can control us just as powerfully as religion – only without the mystical part. And the biggest problem is not even with the ready-made values, but that the ready-made values of our time are disgusting. Make no mistake, I am in no way advocating for “blindly following” anything… But I can still wish we didn’t have to piss in such headwind.
[…] individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments.
But let’s not blame society alone, as it is just as important to free ourselves from the repression of our own physical and psychological impulses.
Achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.
The key is a properly weighted set of values, where we put first what really should be put first. And the ability to consciously direct our own minds is certainly at the top of the list in many schools of thought. Stoicism, Christianity, Psychoanalysis, Yoga, Taoism, Zen, the list goes on and on.
“Okay, okay,” you might rightly ask, “but if this connection is so well known, then why isn’t this attitude more widespread?” I’m glad you asked… There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, this knowledge is not cumulative – that is, it does not accumulate over generations; it is something that everyone has to learn for themselves. Take an Olympic swimmer, for example, who, in addition to being able to swim theoretically in his head, has put in a lot of work and practice to be able to actually swim well. There’s no shortcut for us either.
The other reason is that such an “attitude system” is always situational. The Stoics, for example, may have realized a lot of good things early on, but they also added a good deal of metaphysical bullshit, which makes it hard for modern people to accept it as a package deal. But if we take the time to pick and choose, and to tailor the principles to our own age and needs, we can make significant progress. What a lucky coincidence that this is exactly what we’re doing on this blog!
Our consciousness is in fact nothing more than a filter for the signals we receive from our senses, able to consciously organize the incoming information. And since our consciousness is finite – otherwise we could be living an infinite number of lives per second – it’s a good idea to be careful with what we let in!
Our attention tells us what to do with the information filtered by our consciousness. Most of all, how we manage our attention determines our quality of life. Like time, attention can be seen as a limited resource that is wasted if not used. But of course, even if we do use it, there is no guarantee that we have used it well.
And the self is simply the sum of our past experiences and states of consciousness. Hey, wait a minute! If the self controls my attention, my attention shapes my consciousness, and my consciousness influences my self, then it’s a loop… That’s right – but that’s a good thing, because that’s what makes the process controllable!
If something threatens our goals, then some mental energy must be directed to the source of the threat, which leads to confusion. But it’s important to realize that an external event is just more information that we filter and interpret as we wish. External factors are neither good nor bad in themselves; and the same event can mean very different things to different people.
On the other hand, if the incoming information is well aligned with our goals, that facilitates the flow state. The self will be more confident and stronger if we can “spend” our mental energies in the way we want to. If this happens often, we will be happy – independently of, or even despite of external circumstances. So the fight against ourselves is really a fight for ourselves; to consciously steer ourselves in this flow-y direction.
There are two ways to be happy: 1) we can shape our external circumstances to fit our goals just right; or 2) we can shape our perspective so that our pre-existing external circumstances can fit our goals. I think anyone who is paying attention can guess which of these two is the more realistically attainable.
Research shows only a very weak correlation between wealth and happiness. Even sheer pleasure is only good for restoring order in our minds, but it cannot bring about progress. This is why enjoyment through self-actualization is more important.
One of the most striking differences is that enjoyment is not necessarily pleasurable during the process, but leads to a “better” self afterwards. The other is that while pleasure does not require attention and concentration, enjoyment does. We can compare this to the contrast between reading for pleasure and writing a blog based on careful note-taking. Gee, so many parallels!
Interestingly, people tend to describe their experiences of self-actualization in almost the same way. Even if the activities are very different, or the people describing them come from very different social backgrounds. So it is worth taking a closer look at these suspicious similarities:
- A challenging activity that requires expertise
- Preferably somewhere around our current skill threshold
- Because if it’s too easy it will be boring, but if it’s too difficult it will be frustrating
- It’s a fusion of action and thought
- The goals are clear
- We get immediate feedback
- It leads to exclusive concentration
- Which is, in a sense, a corollary of point 2
- There is no excess mental energy left over to do anything else
- We feel that we are in control
- We experience a temporary loss of consciousness
- Neither the “I”, nor our consciousness actually disappears
- We just become unaware of the “I”
- And the returning “I” is now stronger and more evolved than the one we started with
- We experience an altered sense of time
Let’s first look at what activities often lead to the flow experience. Obvious examples are various games, types of art, ceremonies, and sports, because they practically have the pursuit of flow built in. And if, for example, a stronger opponent leads to progress, and after progress we need an even stronger opponent to maintain the experience, then our self gradually becomes more complex. But religion, philosophy, or other similar “cosmic scale” mind-shaping approaches unfortunately don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve in today’s over-specialized world.
Of course, it also matters what social background we come from. Comparing cultures is not really fashionable these days – and rightly so, given the horrors we have inflicted on others in the past under the pretext of our own superiority – but perhaps flow can provide a useful new yardstick here. If a culture promotes situations that produce states of mind such that its members can often experience flow, then life there is actually one big game. But if our culture is not like that, then let’s remember that nothing can stop us from transforming it!
Our personality can make our approach easier or harder. For example, if someone suffers from schizophrenia or attention deficit disorder (i.e., their attention is too lax), or is overly self-centered and egotistical (i.e., their attention is too rigid), it can be difficult to find the golden mean. To some extent, this reflects external influences, where we might start with a disadvantage if the rules are too loose or we are too tightly bound.
However, even among people who are perfectly healthy, have a good social background, and are engaged in flow-like activities, some are better able to concentrate – and therefore “get into the zone” more frequently. What is important to understand here is that this is just a starting point that can be improved! If we can find a goal to put our mental energy into, find aspects of it that we can control, and then control them… Then we can be “free”, even inside a literal prison cell.
One of the most obvious ways to flow might be to learn to use our bodies properly. And by this, I don’t necessarily mean fitness… Through a detailed example, we are shown that it can be enough to just walk around if we are in the right frame of mind!
Each sensory organ, each motor function can be harnessed to the production of flow.
Eastern cultures are far ahead of the West in this whole mind-body unity thing. Yoga, for example, is considered to be one of the oldest activities that systematically induce flow. Granted, the end goal there – complete “surrender” of the self – is quite different from what we want to accomplish here, but both require the same level of mind-control. And once we have that, we are free to decide what we want to use it for.
Also, we don’t necessarily have to associate to physical activities here. Using our senses alone can be enough, if they are sufficiently developed – by which I mean, we’ve put enough work into developing them. If we can really see the sights before our eyes, really listen to music, really pay attention to the taste of our food, etc. A lot of mental energy can be sunk into the analytical task of turning looking into seeing, or hearing into listening.
Enjoyment, as we have seen, does not depend on what you do, but rather on how you do it.
It’s difficult to become an expert in any of the above areas – and only one or two would take a lifetime anyway – but we can (and should) be proud amateurs! Even limited attention will be infinitely more than the probable zero we’ve paid so far in many potential areas.
At some level, it’s always our minds that decide whether something will be truly enjoyable. But here we’re focusing on activities that are (almost) entirely mental. This requires the ability to think symbolically and “knead” concepts in our heads. The simplest example of this is reading – where we actually hallucinate by staring at symbols painted on wood pulp (or drawn by illuminated, colored dots)… Isn’t that cool?
The default state of mind is, unfortunately, chaos. When there are no stimuli to guide our thoughts, they start wandering all over the place. That’s why cheap distractions like TV can be so popular – they guide our attention from the outside, so we don’t have to face ourselves or make the effort to be “in order”.
Memory is the basis for anything mental, as we need to store the information somewhere first. We are very spoiled with the internet nowadays, but until a few centuries ago, the key to about everything was what we remembered. And the fact that we don’t have to base our learning on this skill anymore (at least, not exclusively) doesn’t mean that it’s not still very important.
Then comes abstract, symbolic thinking, which finds connections in stored information. And it is necessary, because without such an organizing principle, no amount of memory will sort out the mental chaos. It is, after all, the concept-based understanding of the world and the complexity of our mental models that separate us from animals. And despite its bad reputation, thinking can be an enjoyable activity.
By connecting different ideas in our minds, we create new ways of describing reality. And these connection systems can, over time, create self-contained, portable little “worlds” in our heads that we can always rely on (let someone try and take these away from us). We can go even further by expressing this knowledge in some way to others.
From here, it’s up to us to decide which way to turn our attention. The book goes on at length about the merits of the study of history (“Historia est magistra vitae”, or so I’ve heard), the natural sciences, and philosophy. Again, goes without saying that we can’t be masters in all of them, but that shouldn’t deter us from at least shooting for an amateur level! A good priest learns until his death, even if he’s not a priest…
If you find work that you would be doing anyway, it becomes indistinguishable from leisure. Work is only bad if it is an external constraint… Which it unfortunately is for many of us. The book uses rural life as an example for the merging of work and leisure, and somehow I’ve always had the same stereotypes in my head. If you are a “farmer”, that’s what your life is about. It’s not an occupation in the modern sense, it’s a way of life.
But there was an excellent example of a factory worker in an urban environment showing that this merging isn’t only possible on a farm. With the right attitude, we can find little things even along the assembly line that we can change; and if we do change them, we will have a more complex and enjoyable experience. If we consciously “spend” our mental energy, we will feel more like we’ve chosen what we’re doing (even if it’s only the “how” of it, not the “what”).
Of course, we can also increase our chances of work-related flow by changing jobs. Or, at least, redesigning our current work to better resemble the characteristics of flow. But this, while it can sometimes help, is unlikely to work without a matching personality and vision, so we still need to look within ourselves for the answers!
It may seem counterintuitive, but many people believe that flow-generating work is worse than non-flow-generating leisure. Probably because we always think of work as a “have to”, so we look down on it even if it would give us a sense of accomplishment – because it’s for someone else’s benefit, not our own. But this should be reversible with a simple (but not easy!) mental switch.
An even bigger problem is that leisure, by its very nature, is unsystematic and therefore mostly not flow-compatible. This could be solved by voluntarily imposing some sort of system on our leisure time. Very few people have the will to do this, but let’s be part of the minority in this case!
The future will belong not only to the educated man, but to the man who is educated to use his leisure wisely.
– C. K. Brightbill
Apart from work, our happiness is perhaps most influenced by our relationships with others. Our social tendencies have clear evolutionary roots. Studies consistently show that we are happier as part of a community. But it’s also our relationships in general that cause us our deepest depressions, so it’s not without its dangers.
Being alone is hard mostly because inner order itself is hard. Nevertheless, if we can endure “solitude” without boredom or mental chaos, it shows that we are indeed in control.
Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.
– Francis Bacon
Not every approach for dealing with being alone is created equal, though. As we saw in the Mind section, it is much easier to deal with stimuli that impose external order (like TV or drugs). In contrast, reading or a strict daily routine is voluntary, complex, and positively viewed, so it can help us grow… It’s just a metric shitton of work. So most people settle for the most minimal internal order possible. Even if that often means they will spend most of the rest of their lives on autopilot.
Widening the circle, the next level is family, which can increasingly be anything we want it to be. And although the external constraints are gradually disappearing (and that’s good), the internal compromises aren’t going anyway (and that’s not good). Only by making a conscious decision to want it, rather than “putting up with it out of necessity”, can we hope to gain anything positive from it – which, incidentally, frees up a lot of mental energy as well.
It is generally true that you get out of it what you put into it. If you invest time and energy into getting to know each other, into developing common goals and activities, your relationships will be better. If you set an example for your children and don’t expect them to just magically turn out okay on their own, the chances are much higher that they will actually turn out okay. Shocker, I know.
Friendships are inherently more fun because they are usually based on shared goals or tastes. There’s no expectation to behave in a certain way, so it’s OK to “let loose” and be ourselves. But if you want real enjoyment and self-fulfillment rather than a casual after-work beer-drinking session, you have to put in the work and attention. Think how rare it is to be able to keep childhood friends well into adulthood.
And as for the wider community, there are plenty of opportunities for complexity – and thus self-actualization. If our goals are altruistic (say, to help others, or to set an example), we can “grow” almost any amount we want.
Changing our perspective and improving our experiences is not just the icing on the cake; it’s the whole cake. External circumstances will rarely be ideal, but that doesn’t mean that self-direction isn’t the most important goal to strive for. The difficulties, while undeniably negative, are often seen in a positive light later on because they have shown us what is really important.
So it matters how we deal with stressful situations; let’s call it our coping style. We might also get some outside help from family and friends, but it’s not wise to rely on them completely, because they’re not within our control. The two extreme examples in the book are “mature”, transformation-based coping (“What stands in the way becomes the way”, after all), and “neurotic”, withdrawal-based coping. You are free to guess which is recommended…
Standing back up after life kick us to the ground is not really all that different from how we should live anyway.Let’s set our own goals, develop our related skills, learn to focus, overcome our shyness, be open to feedback from the world, and throw ourselves into it! No matter what we start with, they are all mutually reinforcing and all paths lead to
The fact that the mind rules the body is, in spite of its neglect by biology and medicine, the most fundamental fact which we know about the process of life.
– Dr. Franz Alexander
The main lesson for me here is that we don’t necessarily have to wait until fate smacks us in the face with some catastrophe; we could wake up right now. Let’s clean up our values, strive for inner order rather than outer order, and pocket the better life that comes bundled with these!
The highest level would be if we could turn our whole life into one big flow experience. Rather than wandering from one small, isolated flow activity to another – if we can even manage that much – we should find a harmonious, overarching purpose that can tie together practically everything we do. Life doesn’t have a built-in, one-size-fits-all “meaning”, but that doesn’t mean we can’t choose our own meaning!
If we can find such an overarching purpose, and take deliberate steps towards it, we can find our inner peace without ever having to hum in lotus position. There will be no more cognitive dissonance – which is when we do something other than what we would otherwise think is right – and this will lead to a surprising degree of strength and calm.
Society also has its default “meaning of life” systems, which, some research suggests, alternate in a circular fashion. “Sensate” cultures focus only on tangible, concrete needs, while “ideational” cultures focus on abstract principles, asceticism and “enlightenment”. In between, the “idealistic” cultures try to find the golden mean – and rightly so, because neither too much materialism nor fanatical self-denial is ideal.
Another grouping is possible along the lines of complexity, where we split between inward specialization and outward integration. These can be used to describe human development as a spiral, alternating between inward and outward focus. First we strive for survival (in), then we evolve with the community (out); then we turns back towards self-development (in), to finally move towards unity with others again (out). I’d like to note that the problems of the last few hundred years can be nicely summarized as too much specialization (industrial revolution, space travel, electric can opener!) and too little integration (humans aren’t the only occupants here, we should take care of our only planet, don’t let the neighbor’s cow die!).
Once we have a direction, there are two approaches we can take. During an active life, we move towards the destination with such tunnel vision that everything else loses its importance. This is an indirect way of keeping chaos under control, but things postponed or ignored this way may come back to haunt us later. The other approach is the contemplative life, where we turn inward and consider opportunities and consequences. And although this is the direct way to “manage” chaos, it won’t do much good without action…
Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent.
“But why is all this so hard?!”, we might ask. Well, unfortunately we’ve “won” this through progress. Maybe members of some indigenous tribes don’t have to think about such things between hunting trips, but we have no way back.
A complex consciousness is inevitably harder to keep in order, but that doesn’t exempt us from trying. Fortunately, this subject has been covered by quite a few people over the last few thousand years – and ignoring them would be like reinventing the wheel. So if there are so many resources (teachers, books, mental models) on how to create harmony in chaos, let’s use them!
If I were to summarize the book in one quote, it would probably be this:
To rule yourself is the ultimate power.
Imperare sibi, maximum imperium est.
We’ve seen what it takes to be truly happy, and the attitudes, actions and circumstances that make it possible. We’ve then seen how we can apply these principles to our bodies, our minds, our work, our social life, or even to coping with difficulties. Finally, we put it all together into a coherent whole, so that instead of order-fragments, we may have general order. But be warned that with all this information at our disposal, the ball really is in our court, because:
Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it.