TYPE: Non-fiction (science, philosophy), theory.
SYNOPSIS: A bottom-up guide to finding success, growth and happiness through flow – an optimal experience of being, characterised by total absorption and joy in the present moment – by psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high].
IN A NUTSHELL: “The best moments [in our lives]… occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”
NOTE: Happiness isn’t pleasure. Happiness is flow: a state of optimal experience; a state of joy, creativity and total involvement in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of self-transcendence and control.
If you’ve felt hours fly by like moments, held a lover in your arms or marvelled at a sunrise you’ve experienced flow. In fact, it’s a state we experience surprisingly often, at work, at home and at play.
But flow isn’t just something that happens to us, it’s something we can engineer. Something we can get better and better at, no matter what we’re doing, who we’re with or what life throws our way.
How? Csikszentmihalyi leads us through his life’s work and thinking over 10 life-altering chapters:
- Happiness Revisited – Introducing flow and an overview of the book;
- The Anatomy of Consciousness – Examining how consciousness works and is controlled;
- Enjoyment and the Quality of Life – Exploring the optimal state of inner experience;
- The Conditions of Flow – Examining flow in games, sports, art and hobbies;
- The Body in Flow – Developing flow through physical and sensory skills (e.g., sport, music, yoga);
- The Flow of Thought – Developing flow through symbolic skills (e.g., poetry, philosophy, math);
- Work as Flow – Transforming work into a flow-inducing activity;
- Enjoying Solitude and Other People – Flowing on our own and in our relationships;
- Cheating Chaos – Mastering our response to stress and turning adversity to our advantage; and
- The Making of Meaning – Finding universal flow and finding peace through meaning.
Csikszentmihalyi gets straight to the problem: instead of flowing by default, we mostly fluctuate between two extremes:
- Apathy – boredom when things are too easy or not meaningful; and
- Anxiety – disquiet when things are too hard, unclear or caused by chronic dissatisfaction.
The secret? You must find the boundary between apathy and anxiety. You must manage your life so challenges are both meaningful and balanced with your capacity to act. You must learn to:
- Choose and clearly define your goals – from the smallest task to finding your life’s authentic purpose;
- Find ways to measure progress – with clear feedback against an objective or visualised outcome;
- Learn to concentrate fully on the task at hand – focus attention on what you want, for as long as needed but no longer;
- Develop the skills you need to make progress – connecting and interacting ever more deeply with the world around you; and
- Keep raising the stakes – live in crescendo and ensure that your goals always stretch and inspire you.
The reward? A joyous absorption in the now; a loss of self-consciousness, a state where time is altered and all but the present falls away. A state, in fact, that sounds suspiciously like traditional accounts of ‘enlightenment’.
Such experiences are autotelic – an end in themselves, without thought of growth or reward. And yet, they create the perfect conditions for both growth and reward. “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (crunch).
But creating flow, not just at play, but in every part of your life, isn’t always simple. And it definitely isn’t easy. Yet it’s here that Flow really excels – in its bottom-up approach to a problem that has troubled thinkers for thousands of years.
Because, as Csikszentmihalyi’s reminds us, flow isn’t just a fleeting and foreign sensation. It’s not the exclusive domain of masters, philosophers and yogis. It’s something we can all point to in our lives. And the trick isn’t to try and magically flow everywhere, all at once. It’s to methodically master its workings across each domain of our lives – beginning with the games, sports and hobbies we love, passing through learning, work and our relationships with others and ending in our attitude to life’s inevitable setbacks and challenges.
Happiness, it transpires, isn’t a state or a noun, it’s a verb. And it’s in mastering our attention, our ability to set goals, seek feedback, keep challenging ourselves and find joy in the present moment; it’s in deepening and connecting flow at work, at play, at home and in the face of adversity that we find peace and enlightenment. It’s from the bottom-up that we turn flow from fleeting and random into an ongoing act that saturates the whole of our lives.
Mastering flow allows us to create flow no matter what we are doing. And, when we link all those experiences together, it creates a life of happiness.
It gives us a way to transcend ourselves and flourish no matter what comes our way.