August 28, 2021
The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This title is a classic. Widely popular in everything from business to sports, the concept of flow stems directly from this book and the research on which it is based. Yet until recently I never read it. I felt I already understood the concept, because I had heard so much about it in other places. It never occurred to me to go to the original source, which anyway seemed like a dry research paper. Boy was I wrong.
The first surprise: this title is very readable. By no means is it a boring scientific read that takes heroic efforts to plow through. Secondly, instead of merely going into the how of flow, a large part of the book discusses the why: why flow is important for anyone’s life, not just for athletes and other super-performers.
More than anything else, this book is an exploration of happiness. What makes us happy? How can we live a fulfilling life? These are no simple questions to ask, but author Csikszentmihalyi makes a compelling and clear argument as to how happiness can be obtained (in passing, he even gives simple explanations for consciousness and the meaning of life!).
The author touches on a lot of principles from ancient philosophies and religions, such as Stoicism and Buddhism. Yet the approach for a happy life set out in Flow is based upon scientific research, as opposed to rules and guidelines obtained from ancient wisdom. Not that there’s anything wrong with ancient wisdom, but it’s all the more impressive to see modern guidelines to happiness based on scientific research.
So what does it come down to? On the one hand, happiness is not a destination where you arrive, but a condition that needs to be cultivated. It’s affected by the information we let into our thoughts and the way we seek happiness. Csikszentmihalyi makes a clear distinction between pleasure seeking and enjoyment, where pleasure is externally focused and hence a temporary fix for happiness, while true enjoyment comes from within and is sustainable.
On the other hand, it depends on how we engage in activities, and this is where flow enters the scene: the research shows surprisingly few moments of happiness occur when we’re idle. While engaged in work, in creating something, in pursuit of some kind of goal, stretching our abilities to their limits, those are the moments when most of us experience true happiness. This is when we’re in a state of flow.
Paradoxically, this means we often feel happier when working than when engaged in what most people consider leisure time: watching TV, getting drunk, lying on a beach for a week. Flow provides a solution: when the principles are understood, many activities can be turned into rewarding experiences that contribute to our happiness, and who would say no to that?
⭐️ Rating: 4/5
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