Feb
05

TMM book review #1 – Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

posted on February 5th 2015 in Book reviews with 0 Comments

I’ve always loved books.

Correction, I’ve always loved buying books – I’m just not so good at getting around to reading them.

As a result, one of my goals for 2015 is to do more educational reading (more precisely, 30 mins 3 times per week) and, one month in, not only am I hitting my target but I am absolutely loving it and finding myself wanting to read at times when I would have previously defaulted to less engaging habits, such as my old friend the 42″ cathode ray oscilloscope.

When it comes to the “educational” aspect of my reading (well-being, psychology, mental health, habits, mindfulness etc), even the most engaging literature can require quite a bit of concentration and it may be that you have to read 250 pages to uncover 20 sentences which you find insightful – and by the time you’ve got to the end you’ve forgotten what they were.

So, I decided that to capitalise on my new found love of reading, I will be highlighting the bits that I find most useful and/or thought provoking and then summarising them in a book review so that you can benefit from the pearls of wisdom without having to invest hours in heavy reading or you can get a taste of the book from my review and, from there, decide whether you’d like to read the whole thing yourself.

My first choice is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a friend advised surname pronunciation as ‘chicks send me high – li’), a book which I started with good intentions on a yoga retreat last July. I managed the grand total of about 30 pages, interspersed with many involuntary snoozes on the sun lounger and, as a result, had to start from the beginning again when I began my reading quest 6 months on.

I would score this book 9/10. As you will glean from the length of my ‘summary’ below, there were so many individual phrases and whole sections of the book which really resonated with me, brought my attention to some of my own less than constructive behaviours of past and present and gave me much food for thought.

I can definitely recognise periods of my life and particular activities which have generated my own experience of flow and, on the flip side, I recognise habits/behaviours in which I’ve invested my time and energy which are in some ways the opposite of flow due to their unconscious nature and lack of tangible results.

I love the idea that many people in modern society seem to have an automatic view that work is bad and leisure time is good – the former should be minimised and the latter should be maximised. In spite of the fact that, for many, working is much more likely to generate flow than kicking back and relaxing.

My mind is slightly blown away by the concept of having a lifetime goal which then spawns a multitude of others goals – this is definitely something which i’m going to have to put quite a bit more thought into. The concept of meaning and purpose is something that repeatedly consumes me when I’m experiencing depression so I find the concept of having a a holy grail goal to try to anchor myself to is rather exciting, if a bit overwhelming.

What I have included below are my favourite excerpts and the real gems, in my humble opinion, are highlighted in blue – it will therefore read as a relatively crude summary but I hope you’ll find useful and/or interesting nonetheless.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Chapter 1 – Happiness revisited

  • While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal – health, beauty, money, or power – is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy.
  • Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.
  • It is by being involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.
  • “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue….as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course great than oneself.” Viktor Frankl.
  • The paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task. In fact, there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present.
  • To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.
  • 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. 

Chapter 2 – The anatomy of consciousness

  • The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body.
  • Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.
  • Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used.
  • We create ourselves by how we invest our attention or psychic energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.
  • Every piece of information we process gets evaluated for its bearing on the self. Does it threaten our goals, does it support them, or is it neutral? When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly and we describe this as optimal or flow experience.
  • When a person is able to organise his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve, because even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable. In flow we are in control of our psychic energy, and everything we do adds order to consciousness.
  • Following a flow experience, the organisation of the self is more complex than it had been before. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement towards uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies.
  • When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable.
  • Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.

Chapter 3 – Enjoyment and the quality of life

  • There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.
  • Instead of worrying about how to make a million dollars or how to win friends and influence people, it seems more beneficial to find out how everyday life can be made more harmonious and more satisfying, and thus achieve by a direct route what cannot be reached through the pursuit of symbolic goals.
  • Pleasure is a feeling of contentment that one achieves whenever information in consciousness says that expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met.
  • Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.
  • Enjoyment is characterised by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment.
  • We can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention.
  • The phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components:
    1. The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
    2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
    3. The task undertaken has clear goals.
    4. And provides immediate feedback.
    5. One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
    6. Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
    7. Concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
    8. The sense of duration of time is altered, hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
  • One simple way to find challenges is to enter a competitive situation. Hence the great appeal of all games and sports that pit a person or team against another. The challenges of competition can be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.
  • Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.
  • The loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are. And being able to forget temporarily who we are seems to be very enjoyable. When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are.
  • Although it seems likely that losing track of the clock is not one of the major elements of enjoyment, freedom from the tyranny of time does add to the exhilaration of we fell during a state of complete involvement.
  • The term ‘autotelic’ refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward. When an experience is autotelic, the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake; when it is not, the attention is focused on its consequences.
  • 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.
  • We must constantly reevaluate what we do, lest habits and past wisdom blind us to new possibilities.
  • “Water can be both good and bad, useful and dangerous. To the danger, however, a remedy has been found: learning to swim” Democritus.

Chapter 4 – The conditions of flow

  • Every flow activity provides a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushes the person to higher levels of performance, and leads to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transforms the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.
  • It is the dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.
  • One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment.
  • A less drastic obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self-consciousness. A person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her, who is afraid of creating the wrong impression, or of doing something inappropriate, is also condemned to permanent exclusion from enjoyment. So are people who are excessively self-centered. A self-centred individual is usually not self-conscious, but instead evaluates every bit of information only in terms of how it relates to her desires.
  • Both a self-conscious and self-centred person lack the attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake; too much psychic energy is wrapped up in the self, and free attention is rigidly guided by its needs.
  • The traits that make an automatic personality are most clearly revelled by people who seem to enjoy situations that ordinary persons would find unbearable.
  • They pay close attention to the most minute of details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that match what little they are capable of doing, given the circumstances. Then they set goals appropriate to their precarious situation, and closely monitor progress through the feedback they receive. Whenever they reach their goal, they up the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves.
  • Some people are born with a more focused and flexible neurological endowment, or are fortunate to have had parents who promoted unselfconscious individuality. But it is an ability open to cultivation, a skill one can perfect through training and discipline.

Chapter 5 – The body in flow

  • “A man possesses nothing certainly save a brief loan of his own body,” wrote J.B. Cabell, “yet the body of man is capable of much curious pleasure.” When we are unhappy, depressed, or bored we have an easy remedy at hand: to use the body for all it’s worth. But the almost unlimited potential for enjoyment that the body offers often remains unexploited.
  • Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in the process are: a) to set and overall goal, and as many subgoals as ware realistically feasible; b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; d) to develop the skill necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.
  • Enjoyment does not depend on what you do, but rather on how you do it.

Chapter 6 – The flow of thought

  • As Sir Francis Bacon noted almost four hundred years ago, wonder – which is the seed of knowledge – is the reflection of the purest form of pleasure. Just as there are flow activities corresponding to every physical potential of the body, every mental operation is able to provide its own particular form of enjoyment.
  • Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel physic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other by themselves without a hitch.
  • But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations.
  • New discoveries come to people who so enjoy playing with ideas that eventually they stray beyond the limits of what is known, and find themselves exploring uncharted territory.

Chapter 7 – Work as flow

  • There are two ways to enjoy one’s job while making it richer – to change constraints into opportunities for expressing freedom and creativity or to change the job itself, until its conditions are more conducive to flow. The more a job inherently resembles a game – with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback – the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.
  • To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary. On the one hand jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities. But it will also be necessary to help people develop autotelic personalities by training them to recognise opportunities for action, to hone their skills, to set reachable goals. Neither one of these strategies is likely to make work much more enjoyable by itself; in combination, they should contribute enormously to optimal experience.
  • There is a paradoxical situation: on the job people feel skilful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.
  • When it comes to work, people do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.
  • When we feel that we are investing attention in a task against our will, it is as if our psychic energy is being wasted. Instead of helping us reach our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else’s come true.
  • Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
  • Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing. Most jobs and many leisure activities are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else.
  • “The future,” wrote C.K. Brightbill, “will belong not only to the educated man, but to them an who is educated to use his leisure wisely.”

Chapter 8 – Enjoying solitude and other people

  • If we learn to make our relations with others more like flow experiences, our quality of life as a whole is going to be much improved. Yet unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration.
  • Like anything else that really matters, relationships make us extremely happy when they go well, and very depressed when they don’t work out. People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with.
  • Why is solitude such as negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed.
  • When external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic – it is for this reason that television proves such boon to so many people. Of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift, because on expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward.
  • To fill time with activities that require concentration, that increase skills, that lead to a development of the self, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking recreational drugs.
  • A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favourable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life.
  • If being alone is seen as a chance to accomplish goals that cannot be reached in the company of others, then instead of feeling lonely, a person will enjoy solitude and might be able to learn new skills in the process.
  • Every relationship requires a reorienting of attention, a repositioning of goals. When two people begin to go out together, they must accept certain constraints that each person alone did not have: schedules have to be coordinated, plans modified.
  • If a person is unwilling to adjust personal goals when starting a relationship, then a lot of what subsequently happens in that relationship will produce disorder in the person’s consciousness, because novel patterns of interaction will conflict with old patterns of expectation.
  • Being assured of one’s worth in the eyes of one’s kin gives a person the strength to take chances; excessive conformity is usually caused by fear of disapproval. It is much esker for a person to try developing her potential if she knows that no matter what happens, she has a safe emotional base in the family.
  • It is in the company of friends that we can most clearly experience freedom of the self and learn who we really are.
  • A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form. It is someone who shares our goal of self-realisation, and therefore is willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity entails.

Chapter 9 – Cheating chaos

  • In trying to sort out what accounts for a person’s ability to cope with stress, it is useful to distinguish three different kinds of resources. The first is external support available, the second is a person’s psychological resources (such as intelligence, education and relevant personality factors), the third is the coping strategies that a person uses to confront the stress.
  • In each person’s life, the chances of only good things happening are extremely slim. The likelihood that our desires will always be fulfilled is so minute as to be negligible.
  • It is for this reason that courage, resilience, perseverance, mature defines or transformational coping – the dissipative structures of the mind – are so essential. Without them we would be constantly suffering through the random bombardment of stray psychological meteorites.
  • Those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal.
  • There are three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:
    1. Unselfconscious self-assurance – implicit belief that their destiny is in their hands, their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.
    2. Focusing attention on the world – it is difficult to notice the environment as long as attention is mainly focused inward, people who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves and are open enough to notice and adapt to external events.
    3. The discovery of new solutions – almost every situation we encounter in life presents possibilities for growth, but this requires that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities.
  • We all start with preconceived notions of what we want from life. These include the basic needs programmed by our genes to ensure survival – food, comfort, sex, dominance over other beings. They also include the desires that our specific culture has inculcated in us – to be slim, rich, educated and well liked. If we embrace these goals and are lucky, we may replicate the ideal physical and social image for our historical time and place. But is this the best use of our psychic energy? We will never become aware of other possibilities unless we evaluate events on the basis of their direct impact on how we feel, rather than exclusively in terms of preconceived notions.
  • The rules for developing an autotelic self which can turn experiences into flow are:
    1. Setting goals – learning to make choices without much fuss and the minimum of panic, knowing that you have chosen whatever goal you are pursuing.
    2. Becoming immersed in the activity – learning to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses, many people stagnate because they do not trust their own potential.
    3. Paying attention to what is happening – the ability to sustain involvement, instead of worrying how you are doing, look from the outside and remain wholeheartedly committed to the goal. The self of a person who regards everything from an egocentric perspective may be more secure, but it is certain to be an impoverished one relative to that of a person who is willing to be committed, to be involved, and who is willing to pay attention to what is happening for the sake of the interaction rather than purely out of self-interest.
    4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience – the ability to enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty, being in control of the mind means that literally anything happens can be a source of joy.

Chapter 10 – The making of meaning

  • As long as enjoyment follows piecemeal from activities not linked to one another in a meaningful way, one is still vulnerable to the vagaries of chaos.
  • If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together – and each activity will “make sense” in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life.
  • It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning.
  • It does not matter what the ultimate goal is – provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy. A unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.
  • What counts is not so much whether a person actually achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether effort has been expended to reach the goal, instead of being diffused or wasted.
  • The wealth of options we face today has extended personal freedom to an extent that would have been inconceivable even a hundred years ago. But the inevitable consequence of equally attractive choices is uncertainty of purpose; uncertainty, in turn, saps resolution, and lack of resolve ends up devaluing choice.
  • Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. It follows that the only way to reduce conflict is by sorting out the essential claims from those that are not, and by arbitrating priorities among those that remain.
  • To extend the state of flow through the entirety of life it is necessary to invest energy in goals that are so persuasive that they justify effort even when our resources are exhausted and when fate is merciless. If goals are well chosen, and if we have the courage to abide by them despite opposition, we shall be so focused on the actions and events around us that we won’t have the time to be unhappy.

Phew!

TMM book review #2 will be The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

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