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Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Basic Books, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street,
New York, NY 10022, 1997; 181 pp., $20.00.
Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Difficulty Level: 7 (out of 10)
Recommendation: A very interesting and thought-provoking book
Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "CHICK-sent-me-high-ee") begins his new work by returning us to one of the ancient Greeks' favorite questions: How can we live a good, or excellent, life? How can we live full, serene, useful lives where we express our uniqueness, participate fully in the complexity of the cosmos, and waste little of our time or potential?
Csikszentmihalyi's inquiry into living a good life is based on three planks:
- Although "the sacred books of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and the Veda are the best repositories of the ideas that mattered most to our ancestors, and to ignore them is an act of childish conceit," we need to reinterpret the wisdom of these old prophets, poets, and philosophers in terms of our modern conceptual vocabularies;
- Science (which in Csikszentmihalyi's case means psychology and sociology) although limited in its knowledge, is the most trustworthy mirror of reality that we have; and
- While focusing on the past and future is useful, life is "what we experience from morning to night, seven days a week, for about seventy years if we are lucky, for even longer if we are very fortunate." To determine how to live a good life, then, we must look at reasonable scientific evidence focused on the mundane, everyday events that we typically encounter throughout a normal day.
In addition to relying on polls, survey, and time budgets, in the early 1970's Csikszentmihalyi developed the "Experience Sampling Method," or ESM, to determine how people actually spend their ordinary days:
The ESM uses a pager or a programmable watch to signal people to fill out two pages in a booklet they carry with them. Signals are programmed to go off at random times ... At the signal the person writes down where she is, what she is doing, what she is thinking about, who she is with, and then rates her state of consciousness at the moment on various numerical scales: how happy she is, how much she is concentrating, how strongly she is motivated, how high her self-esteem is, and so on.
Interestingly enough, according to the ESM studies done by Csikszentmihalyi and others, it turns out that we don't spend our time very differently than do African baboons. Moreover, virtually all types of people in all cultures throughout the world tend to sleep about one third of their lives, with the rest of their time divided fairly evenly between traveling, finding and eating food (work), and free leisure, or put another way, cycles of rest, production, consumption, and interaction.
In short, "[T]he limitations on attention, which determines the amount of psychic energy we have for experiencing the world, provide an inflexible script for us to live by. Across time and in different cultures, what people do and for how long is astonishingly similar."
Given an ESM-based intimate knowledge of how Americans actually spend their time and feel about how they spend their time, the question remains: how can we live more excellent lives? Not surprisingly, the great conceptual filter and leverage point which Csikszentmihalyi applies is his well-known analysis of the "flow" state (his earlier book, Flow, remains a best-seller).
Flow is a "sense of effortless action [people] feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as 'being in the zone,' religious mystics as being in 'ecstasy,' artists and musicians as 'aesthetic rapture.'" Importantly, "Flow tends to occur when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable," or, put another way, "when goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes order and fully invested."
And again, not surprisingly, it is maximizing the quantity of flow experiences that leads to the best possible, most excellent, life:
When a person's entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own. It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.
Put more darkly, the very last page of the book tells us that "Hell ... is simply the separation of the individual from the flow of life."
The great point of this book, then, is to urge us to become conscious of how we spend our time so that we can maximize motivation, concentration, happiness, and especially flow. Although we are limited by the human condition and the social and cultural categories that we find ourselves in, "there is enough room for personal initiative and choice to make a real difference." Unfortunately, the author says, "there are no gimmicks, no easy shortcuts. It takes a total commitment to a fully experienced life, one in which no opportunities are left unexplored and no potential undeveloped, to achieve excellence."
Although Finding Flow is sobering, informative, entertaining, and occasionally even fascinating, it is ultimately a frustrating book. The problem lies not so much with the author's sole reliance on flow as his chief analytical filter (the dictum "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything you see begins to look like a nail" comes to mind), but in his failure to give us a yoga or practice by which more flow can readily be achieved.
Yes, Csikszentmihalyi gives us a roadmap of sorts, describing which time expenditures are more or less likely to lead to flow and other positive consequences. But just knowing what's good for us is not enough. The Socratic Paradox asks: "If to know the good is to do the good, then why do people constantly do things that are not good for them?" Similarly, although it may be true that "To know of Flow is to go for Flow," actually achieving it -- finding simple, practical, or reliable ways to garner the psychic energy necessary to change our ordinary habits and ways of spending time -- remains as elusive as ever.
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