Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review of Flow by Mihali Csikszentmihalyi

Every once in a while I read a book that I think some people I know might like or should read, and other times I read a book that I think everyone should read. This is one of those books. It can profoundly change or fortify the way you look at life and happiness…in a good way! I am SO impressed. I wasn’t two chapters in when I was buying a copy for my wife, starting a weekly video-chat with my brother as we read through it together, and telling other friends about it. It did not disappoint. I truly think everyone who is serious about living life to its fullest should read this book. However, that is not to say that I think everyone is ready to read this book, partly because it is slow-going in parts and one would probably need to be accustomed to reading in general just to get through it; or a person’s life may be too busy to really soak it in; or it may be outside the range of understanding until some other foundation is laid. It’s a relatively short book (about 230 pages), but it could take some time to assimilate the revolutionary concepts.

I can hear the question now, “What’s so revolutionary about it?” Well, wipe that sneer off your face (and the piece of brownie on your chin…a little lower…to the right…there…got it) and let me tell ya! It claims that we can be most happy when we encounter problems; that we are often unaware of how unfulfilled we are during our free time, or vice versa, how fulfilled we are when working; that we can enjoy ‘optimum experience’ in any employment at any pay rate; that we often miss out of fulfilling experiences because we don’t know how to identify and pursue opportunities for ‘flow’; and a meaningful life can be lived with satisfaction on a variety of levels, with potential for adjusting and redirecting goals/action at any moment.

Hear me when I say, this book really helps to clear up the notions of happiness, enjoyment, purpose, and meaning in life. It isn’t a tired self-help book or the latest insipid leadership bestseller. It’s ground-breaking in psychology and sociology, bringing new light to the meaning of work and suffering, and explaining why and how we can enjoy life as a result from—not merely in spite of—difficulty. “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.”

And, for what it’s worth to some, I found this to be an exquisitely phrased and very nicely illustrated response to the rise of relativistic inertia (aporia) in postmodern worldviews that some feel will inevitably bankrupt the morality of future generations. Csikszentmihalyi's (pronounced 'chick-sent-mee-hi') work would indicate that a life of meaning, happiness, and moral stability is possible with a postmodern mindset. What’s more, a person who is free from the constraints of antiquated rules and traditions that are no longer relevant or helpful in our world have more opportunities, not less, to enlarge her sense of meaning and happiness in the universe.

To begin with, the author uses the word “flow” to mean that state of naturally confident and euphoric being we sometimes describe as being “in the zone,” or enjoying a attitude of absolute positivity and a sense of accomplishment. It is where one feels like there is a strong and steady flow to the process of one’s experience of life that produces a sense of overall purpose and rightness. We all know that feeling. We sometimes describe it as feeling like we’re doing something that we were “born to do.” It’s the thrill of mastery over chaos, the moving of a mountain, or trailblazing a new territory which brings intense focus and elation. “Flow [is] the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” It’s not the restful state of not-being-bothered, but exercising control and exerting oneself with positive results, including a new sense of order in one’s actions, and further, a sense of knowing one’s place in the universe.

To study people’s widely varying experiences of flow, the author and his research team at the University of Chicago tried something ingenious. They sent home beepers to thousands of people all over the world: aging women in Korea, adults in Thailand and India, teenagers in Tokyo, Navajo shepherds, farms in the Italian Alps, and workers on the assembly line in Chicago. The beepers went off at random times throughout the week, and participants had to stop what they were doing to journal a few things including what they were doing, what they were feeling, what they were thinking about, and what they would rather be doing.

What they found was a pattern of experiencing flow that was consistent with people in all places, occupations, and stages of life. The research team’s study found—as illustrated in the graph below where the x axis represents difficulty, and the y axis represents skills—that for most people if difficulty in tasks increased, but their skills did not increase, the result was anxiety; while increasing skills without increasing difficulty/challenges resulted in boredom.

Enjoyment, or “flow”, became evidenced as the vector between the two that revealed a balance of difficulty/skills that were continually increasing in complexity. The possibility of experiencing flow was pretty much, across the board, attainable by anyone in any situation. The research also concluded that flow might even be more often present in situations where a person may not have been conscious of the potential for flow, like at work or during an arduous task; while, ironically, they reported experiencing less flow during their vacation, weekends, or free time. Even so, the experience of flow appeared to be largely unacknowledged by participants in the study when it wasn’t anticipated, and they still reported a desire to be somewhere other than work even when experiencing flow, chasing that ever-elusive, difficulty-free pastime that would be thrilling and fulfilling with the least amount of work. This is explained by the author as a culturally ingrained expectation, a desire for some type of easy-Eden that appears in every culture’s mythos.

Evidently, enjoyment far outweighs pleasure in most people’s values. “Enjoyment occurs when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire [pleasure]; but has gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.” In this sense, enjoyment is a transcendent becoming of more than one was, an expansion of being; or what Nietzsche would describe as life “which must ever surpass itself.” The author lists and gives excellent treatment of the conditions and symptoms of this enjoyment, which are:

1.       Confronting achievable tasks

2.       Concentration

3.       Clear goals

4.       Immediate feedback

5.       Deep and effortless involvement that crowds out other worries

6.       Sense of control over actions/environment

7.       Loss of self-awareness, but stronger awareness after activity ends

8.       Loss of sense of time

But lest someone think that enjoyment sounds too strictly formulaic, we must keep in mind that enjoyment might indeed occur accidentally, but the author is mostly interested in helping people learn from, so as to repeat, their experiences of enjoyment in life, which enjoyment is always a possibility in any circumstance since everything we do is potentially a source of enjoyment. Not only can we find enjoyment in any situation, but the author concludes that the mind can be exercised as a ‘dissipative structure’, which is a system that actually feeds off chaotic or destructive energy and channels it in positive ways. “Without [dissipative capabilities] we would be constantly suffering through the random bombardment of stray psychological meteorites” calculated to reduce our focus and effectiveness. Enjoyment, then, is not only a creation of meaningful experiences (‘autotelic’—self purposing) from static factuality, but it can also be a transformation of negative energy into positive energy (‘dissipative’).

Order in the mind is something we take for granted. When the ideas inside our head about the world are ordered well, the world outside our head is better managed and adapted to. When disorder arises, so do frustration, confusion, anger, and fear. The author hits this emphasis of cognitive structure pretty hard. Order in the mind offers better choices and paths in the world, and helps to sort and sharpen our skills as difficulty increases. “Everything we experience—joy or pain, interest or boredom—is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like.” Any professional without an accurate internal map of the world or sophisticated gear developed by an internal plan is not going to be as effective. Language, music, poetry, memory, internal dialogue, and creative games are all discussed by the author as ways to utilize our ability to encode the external world in a downloadable ‘binary’ of abstractions and symbols which help to order and evolve this inner world.

Games are given no trivial role here. Everything in life is a potential game-- as one philosopher put it, “everything that happens to us is a chance”—and every challenge can cultivate skills and increase complexity with regular feedback and rewards. I am reminded of Thoreau’s words, “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.” Small games incorporated into daily life are dubbed by the author ‘microflow’, small games which help us find enjoyment and create ‘play’ out of the mundane.  I especially loved the author’s comparison of culture with game. “The difference [between culture and game] is mainly one of scale…both consist of more or less arbitrary goals and rules that allow people to become involved in a process and act with a minimum of doubts and distractions…culture as a whole becomes a ‘great game’.” He sees religion, law, customs and traditions to be ways to set manageable, though perhaps sometimes narrow and abortive, parameters on an otherwise infinite host of options and information. “Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos…Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless action within self-created boundaries.”

Religion and custom even of the most primitive nature can optimize “life-space” (my words), exploring and exhausting the possibilities of a limited sphere of thought and existence, although it becomes quickly detrimental when cultural space is optimized but there is no growth towards increasing complexity or extending the boundaries outward. A checker’s game has only so many moves; new chess pieces and rules increase the possibilities and skills involved with the same board; a different board altogether allows for a larger variety of games and therefore skills developed. The goal of flow is enjoyment through optimized practice and growth, and this is facilitated by respecting the rules of culture and game, but also being willing to change the rules and even the game when the time comes.

The author bear-hugs some big topics for such a little book, including the nature of consciousness and the ‘meaning of meaning’, the latter actually being an excellent application of his ideas to the bigger questions of life. He breaks down the semantics of the word ‘meaning’ into three categories: 1) Meaning as a ultimate goal or purpose (“the meaning of food is give us energy”), 2) Meaning as personal intention and resolution (“he was meaning to take the trash out”), and 3) Meaning as a personal ordering of impersonal information, identities and events (“the sound of ambulance sirens means that someone is in need of medical attention”). He goes on to expound on these senses of meaning as applied to our desire to discover the meaning of life, and he actually does a fantastic job on the topic, even if the results may seem initially anticlimactic to theistic worldviews.

To the question, “How do we learn which goals are worthwhile to pursue with the antiquation of many traditional values and goals?” he answers by, “Through trial and error, through intense cultivation, we can straighten out the tangled skein of conflicting goals, and choose the one that will give purpose to our action.” Not as comforting as it may be true. Consciousness has brought some boons (though the author was a bit obscure on this point when he compared human consciousness with animal behavior which apparently is “always in a state of flow”) as far as more nuanced enjoyment and complexity of being through tackling more difficult goals and struggling towards the light of understanding and mastery; but there’s no denial that problems become more complex too, and often challenges and skills are out of balance for a time, inducing anxiety or boredom.

Now, to be fair, and I feel like someone should say it at this point, so it might as well be me, despite the overwhelmingly positive tenor of the book and the proposition that enjoyment is achievable by all people in all situations; still, some people’s lives suck, and that’s all there is to it. Take, for example, children exploited in forced labor, abuse, or neglect; people with mind-crippling illnesses or disabilities; or anyone in situations that endure unimaginable cruelty or agony emotionally, mentally, or physically. Granted, the author says that “stress exists only if we experience it; it takes the most extreme objective conditions to cause it directly”, but those extreme conditions do exist for some people, and the only way out is a cure and not merely a new way to look at the problem. But the author’s point is that extreme, volition-crippling circumstances and suffering are the exceptions, not the rule; and it would behoove us to prepare for what we can fix, not what we can’t fix. And, as a rule, we are able to experience enjoyment much more than we often tend to believe, as our dissipative, autotelic capabilities are much more vast and near to hand than we often assess them to be.

Overall, I found this author to be extremely reasonable and balanced in his approach, and I began to trust him the more I read. He used a multitude of real life vignettes, staying grounded in reality by widely varied anecdotes. He never drifted too far into theory before he snapped back to real life. It seemed very fair and considerate towards differing viewpoints, especially regarding the value of historical events and belief systems which have helped to shape humanity. He doesn’t claim to offer a final weltanschuuang—an answer to everything—but he does offer something…that works! So, there’s that. It seems that a universal practice—not a uniform, formally expressed praxis—has worked pretty well for people throughout all time and places to produce flow and enjoyment; and still seems to be, at bottom, what makes people most happy. At the very least this is a good fix until we find what we are looking for.

Well done, Csikszentmihalyi! Bravo!

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