Reading this book took me a while—4 months to be exact. It isn’t a self-help book, but more like a voyage into different realms of psychology, philosophy, ideology, culture, history and the arts. So rich is this book that I had to put it down at times and read other lighter stuff for “fun”.
Not that this book is boring (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, is a superb writer. In fact, better than many professional writers and journalists.) but it does require that you pay attention.
Incidentally, attention is key to flow. Flow is the state when we’re so absorbed in what we’re doing that nothing else matters. Time is suspended and our minds are free from distractions and worries and are only focused on the activity on hand.
But it isn’t the same as achieving a “high”. An optimal experience is neither passive or relaxing. It’s not mindless fun, but challenging fun. It happens only when we’re “stretched” in some way and we grow as a result, into a more complex being.
That came as a surprise. “Complex” holds a negative connotation for me, as opposed to “simple”. But oh well.
Humankind has come a long way since the age of the emperors and tyrants, but why aren’t we any happier, asks Csikszentmihalyi. As he puts it, with the great advances we’ve made in all fields of human endeavours, we’re making Roman gods look like helpless children. But we’re no closer in our pursuit of happiness.
Frustrations and chronic dissatisfaction stand in our way. Humans are stuck on a treadmill of rising expectations: The moment we’ve achieved what we dreamed of, we want something more. Add to that the fact that the universe, contrary to popular belief, is a hostile and chaotic place, you have a whole bunch of anxious people who feel that their lives are beyond their control.
Even though we try hard, total control over external factors is next to impossible. What we can control is our consciousness, and our experiences. Csikszentmihalyi tells us to emancipate ourselves from social control and even our genetic programming so that our inner life is free from outside rewards and punishments, and biological urges. You can see how this definitely isn’t a step-by-step, self-help sort of book.
In fact, it’s not even a book just on flow. It’s about having mastery over our lives (“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” as Invictus goes.)
Flow is total involvement with life. And a way for us to achieve happiness is to experience flow as often as possible. But to do that, we have to gain control over our experiences.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research yielded eight hallmarks of optimal experiences:
1. We are confronted by a task we have a chance of completing.
2. We’re able to concentrate on what we’re doing.
3. The task has clear goals.
4. It also provides immediate feedback.
5. One feels a deep involvement without everyday worries and frustrations.
6. We exercise control over our actions.
7. Concern for the self (self-consciousness) disappears.
8. Sense of the duration of time is altered.
Csikszentmihalyi invites us to convert our jobs, relationships, and hobbies into optimal experiences using his blueprint. The point is, I guess, to not go through our lives on autopilot, but to turn everything into a challenge that can help us grow.
Curious fact 1: People experience flow more often during work than leisure. Yet, we consistently prefer leisure over work. Csikszentmihalyi concluded that people are ignoring the evidence and instead buy into the popular notion that work is a burden. I beg to differ. Jobs are both the main source of stress and flow, and I suspect stress happens more often.
Curious fact 2: It was strange to be reading about ‘The Pain of Loneliness’ and ‘Taming Solitude’ in a little tea cafe during my solo trip in South Korea (which itself feels like an optimal experience). I guess it only illustrates the fact that experiences which lead to flow vary vastly for different people.
Csikszentmihalyi is particularly critical of the way we fritter away our leisure time by passively consuming what mass media are feeding us. (To which I say, hey, a well-made movie can do a world of good to a tired soul! Case in point: Gravity).
TV is a big no-no while literature gets a hat tip from him. While he thinks that knowledge about controlling our inner life isn’t cumulative (Which is why we haven’t progressed very far. It’s not enough to just study it, we must experience it for ourselves, we must cultivate it.) and must be reformulated every time our culture changes, literature, religion, philosophy are replete with lessons and wisdom earned by those who tried.
The book was a birthday present to myself and I’ve to say I picked a pretty good one. I feel like I was reading the work of not just a psychologist, but a polymath. Csikszentmihalyi illustrates his theory not just with research findings and statistics, but with historical facts, Greek mythology and Taoist writings.
It’s an impressive read all right, although I feel that optimal experiences make up only part of our happiness. Sometimes we’re happy just to stare out the window at nothing. It’s OK to enjoy that mindless Hollywood blockbuster after a stressful week at work.
Certainly they do nothing for our long-term happiness the way challenging, optimal experiences can, but sometimes simple pleasures can be happiness too.