Saturday, November 07, 2009

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

There is no question that to survive, and especially to survive in a complex society, it is necessary to work for external goals and to postpone immediate gratifications. But a person does not have to be turned into a puppet jerked about by social controls. The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one's own powers. This is not to say that we should abandon every gal endorsed by society; rather, it means that, in addition to or instead of the goals other use to bribe us with, we develop a set of our own.

The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one's shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps something good will happen.

... pain and pleasure occuring consciousness and exist only there.


Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.

An autotelic experience is very different from the feelings we typically have in the course of life. So much of what we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to do it, or because we expect some future benefit from it. Many people feel that the time they spend at work is essentially wasted - they are alienated from it, and the psychic energy invested in the job does nothing to strengthen their self. For quite a few people free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.

The autotelic experience, or flow, lifts the course of life to a different level.


Everything the body can do is potentially enjoyable. Yet many people ignore this capacity, and use their physical equipment as little as possible, leaving its ability to provide flow unexploited.

When a normal physical function, like running, is performed in a socially designed, goal-directed setting with rules that offer challenges and require skills, it turns into a flow activity.

concentration of attention


The same person can meditate in the morning and shut out all sensory experience, and then look at a great work of art in the afternoon; either way he may be transformed by the same sense of exhilaration.

Be able to see Sheeler-like quality of a roofscape.


In our culture, despite the recent spotlight on gourmet cuisine, many people still barely notice what they put in their mouths, thereby missing a potentially rich source of enjoyment. To transform the biological necessity of feeding into a flow experience, one must begin by paying attention to what one eats.


The point is that playing with ideas is extremely exhilarating. Not only philosophy but the emergence of new scientific ideas is fueled by the enjoyment one obtains from creating a new way to describe reality. The tools that make the flow of thought possible are common property, and consist of the knowledge recorded in books available in schools and libraries. A person who becomes familiar with the conventions of poetry, or the rules of calculus, can subsequently grown independent of external stimulation.


Today words still offer many opportunities to enter flow, at various levels of complexity. A somewhat trivial but nevertheless illuminating example concerns working crosswords.

A more substantive potential use of words to enhance our lives is the lost art of conversation.

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, the influential phenomenological sociologists, have written that our sense of the universe in which we live is held together by conversation.


Most of us don't think of ourselves as having been amateur historians all along. But once we become aware that ordering events in time is a necessary part of being a conscious being, and moreover, that it is an enjoyable task, then we can do a much better job of it. There are several levels at which history as a flow activity can be practiced. The most personal involves simply keeping a journal. The next is to write a family chronicle, going as far into the past as possible. But there is no reason to stop there. Some people expand their interest to the ethnic group to which they belong, and start collecting relevant books and memorabilia. With an extra effort, they can begin to record their own impressions of the past, thus becoming "real" amateur historians.

All too often we are inclined to view history as a dreary list of dates to memorize, a chronicle established by ancient scholars for their own amusement. It is a field we might tolerate, but not love; it is a subject we learn about so as to be considered educated, but it will be learned unwillingly. If this is the case, history can do little to improve the quality of life. Knowledge that is seen to be controlled from the outside is acquired withe reluctance, and it brings no joy. But as soon as a person decides which aspects of the past are compelling, and decides to pursue them, focusing on the sources and the details that are personally meaningful, and recording findings in a persona style, then learning history can become a full-fledged flow experience.


There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes towards levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or a dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally, "amateur," from the Latin verb amare, "to love," referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a "dilettante," from the Latin delectare, "To find delight in," was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attentino to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes toward the value of experience as the fate of those two words. There was a time when it was admirable to be an amateur poet or a dilettante scientist, because it meant that the quality of life could be improved by engaging in such activities. But increasingly the emphasis has been to value behavior over subjective states; what is admired is success, achievement, the quality of performance rather than the quality of experience. Consequently it has become embarrassing to be called a dilettante, even though to be a dilettante is to achieve what counts most - the enjoyment one's actions provide.


Most people feel a nearly intolerable sense of emptiness when they are alone, especially with nothing specific to do.

Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do next... For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating.


Although watching TV is far from being a positive experience - generally people report feeling passive, weak, rather irritable, and sad when doing it - at least the flickering screen brings a certain amount of order to consciousness.


The difference between someone who enjoys life and someone who is overwhelmed by it is a product of a combination of such external factors and the way a person has come to interpret them - that is, whether he sees the challenges as threats or as opportunities for action.

The "autotelic self" is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self.

The rules for developing such a self are simple:

1. Setting goals.
2. Becoming immersed in the activity.
3. Paying attention to what is happening.
4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience.


...describing the subjective order that a unified purpose brings to individual consciousness. In this sense the answer to the old riddle "What is the meaning of life?" turns out to be astonishingly simple. The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.


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