Revolution Lullabye

January 3, 2009

Csikszentmihaly, Flow

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Csikszentmihaly explains the principles a person must follow in order to achieve flow, the optimal experience which leads to true happiness. His theory of flow is based on the data collected by his team of researchers through the University of Chicago, who interviewed experts in diverse fields (surgeons, dancers, philosophers, mountain climbers, musicians), and gathered personal testaments from hundreds of other ordinary people around the world through a method called experience sampling, where a person wears a pager for a week and writes down their feelings and thoughts each time the pager goes off (eight randomized times a day.) His concept of flow and optimal experience builds on the theories developed by other scholars in psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and is used by those in fields as varied as occupational therapy, education, design, and criminal justice.

Csikszentmihaly’s theory of optimal experience is grounded in the belief that an individual must control their own consciousness (their perception and reaction to reality) in order to achieve happiness. The universe cannot be controlled or predicted; therefore, instead of only reacting to it as a passive responder, a person who wants to achieve flow must confront the challenges life brings and find a way to make meaning out of them. That way of meaning must be intrinsically developed through a set of personal goals and purposes, for societal goals and the “shields of culture” society develops in response to the chronic frustration humans face in nature can fall apart, leading to further disillusion and anxiety. What people can control is their attention: what bits of information they choose to focus on and pay attention to.

Happiness, Csikszentmihaly argues, is achieved through participation in autotelic activities, defined as “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” (67). Autotelic activities have several characteristics: they are challenging activities that require skills, they occur during the merging of action and awareness, they have clear goals and feedback, they require complete concentration on the task at hand, they give the person a sense of non-threatened control, they allow the person to experience a loss of self-consciousness as the person becomes one with the activity, and they often involve a transformation of time (time slows down or speeds up.) The purpose of life, Csikszentmihaly argues, is to create a systematic pattern of optimal experiences, which can be achieved by setting goals, becoming immersed in activities that you care about, paying attention to what happens around you, and enjoying the immediate experiences of life. In the book, Csikszentmihaly shows how people can experience flow in physical activities, symbolic activities, work, relationships, and during times of extreme stress and tragedy.

Quotable Quotes

“Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their life, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy” (2).

Flow: “The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (4).

“We create ourselves by how we invest this energy” – psychic energy, attention (33)

“Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience” (81) Cultures create goals and rules about how people should order attention.

“People without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers, and exploited by anyone who has something to sell” (128).

“Taking up each new challenge not as something to be repressed or avoided, but as an opportunity for learning and improving skills” (172)

“Learning how to use time alone, instead of escaping from it” (171)

Notable Notes

Csikszentmihaly’s notes are contained in the back of the book, with references to the literature behind his claims for each chapter. The notes are extensive and are a condensed scholarly-referenced version of the book.

Optimal experience, flow, attention are not passive – they call on people to participate in life.

Csikszentmihaly believes that religion is not the answer for finding true happiness because it is a construct of culture, not an individually-determined creation. Old methods of liberation (from societal controls) don’t always work in different historical contexts (example: yoga in modern-day California) because the needs and purposes of people are different.

Consciousness = “intentionally ordered information” (26) because lots of information enters our brain (7 bits at a time, 40 bits a second), but we have to choose what we pay attention to and make part of our consciousness, our version of reality.

Plane of happiness: boredom — flow — anxiety/frustration

Autotelic families instill clarity, centering, choice, commitment, and challenge to their children.

The autotelic personality is created both individually and by a society that allows autotelic individuals to function and work.

History is important and enjoyable because it exercises memory. The ability to memorize allows for self, internal stimulation because the mind “is stoked with patterns of information” – an independent, autonomous mind (124).

Autotelic jobs are independent, skill-driven, challenging, and constructed like games.

People who get through ordeals well have dissipative structures that can recycle waste into order and energy: unselfconscious self-assurance, can focus attention on the world rather than themselves, and are open to discover new solutions and alternatives. (201-202)

Making all of life have meaning involves finding purpose, choosing a path of resolve, and moving in harmony with the world.

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