Flow (Csikszentmihalyi)


Published 2021-02-13

I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book. I’ve been interested in flow since high school, when I first experienced it while recording music. I had told my mom about how twelve hours could fly by in what felt like minutes, and she said “that’s called ‘flow’—I experience it when I do surgery.” I later learned in a positive psychology course at university that not only is there a word for this phenomenon, but there are people who study it. Csikszentmihalyi is the foremost flow researcher, and he’s the one who named the concept.

I thought this book would be about the narrowly defined state I used to experience when recording music, but it’s actually about happiness. Different activities are ‘flow-y’ to different degrees, and according to Csikszentmihalyi, happiness mainly consists of spending more time in relatively flowier states. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should spend all our lives in a state of intense, obsessive focus. It means that generally we should spend more time doing things that bring order to consciousness—or that “reduce psychic entropy”, as he puts it. The more you are focused, actively engaged, and challenged by your experience, the more likely you are to be in flow, and the more likely you are to lead a happy life.

People who experience the most flow are those who have an autotelic personality, i.e. their sense of purpose comes from within. They have the desire and the ability to bring order to their own consciousness, without external help. Csikszentmihalyi discusses crossword puzzles, and says that while they can be a great source of flow for those who solve them, they are even better for those who create them, because the experience is shaped by the constraints inherent to the activity itself, rather than by another person.

Many of Csikszentmihalyi’s conclusions are drawn from experience sampling studies, in which participants carry around a pager for several weeks. At random points throughout the day, the pager buzzes and the particpant stops to report what they’re doing and how they feel. One observation I found interesting was that for people who live alone and don’t attend church, the lowest point in the week is Sunday morning. As Csikszentmihalyi explains, it’s the time of the week that is the least likely to be structured by external forces. This means the onus is on the individual to bring order to their own consciousness, which, it turns out, many people are pretty dismal at. He quotes the American sociologist Robert Park: “It is in the improvident use of our leisure, I suspect, that the greatest wastes of American life occur.”

I’m coming away from this book feeling motivated to reflect on how I might bring more order to my consciousness, especially by tweaking how I spend my leisure time. I also feel inspired by the examples of highly autotelic people Csikszentmihalyi described in the book.

I should say: the book is pretty dated in a lot of ways. E.g. it belabors points that many modern secular readers would take for granted, like the idea that the universe doesn’t care about human happiness. It also talks about gender and sex in ways that wouldn’t fly today. It’s occasionally shallow, boring, judgy, or grandiose. So, parts of it will probably annoy you, but even still, I highly recommend it.

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