Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Flow” is a state of mind in which you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing and time just flashes by. Flow is a layman’s psychology book examining this state of mind, how to achieve it, and what its benefits are.

Csikszentmihalyi (whose name makes me grateful I don’t have to give a speech about this research!) goes into great detail about the characteristics of flow and what enables or prevents it. To achieve flow, you need clear goals, feedback, adequate skills, a challenge, and concentration. You have to be in this golden zone between anxiety and boredom. I was not surprised to see that the activity that people cited the most often as bringing them to the state of flow is reading.

Once the idea of flow is thoroughly explained, it’s clear that there are many practical applications. The most obvious to me, of course, is education. If students and teachers are in flow even half the day, it’s a great day. Finding that sweet spot where everyone is challenged, getting feedback, and focusing on the problem at hand, and nobody is worried or bored, is hard to do, but so gratifying when it happens.

Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes the difference between enjoyment–which can be found in the absorption of the flow state–and mere pleasure. Pleasure is just having fun, which may include very passive activities like riding a roller coaster. Enjoyment, for Csikszentmihalyi, implies a more active engagement. Through engaging in enjoyable activities that allow you to achieve flow, you can become a richer, more complex person with more fully developed mind and abilities. Finally I have a vocabulary to explain why reading is superior to watching reality TV!

I feel like I need to read this book again to try to get even more out of it. The conclusion was particularly resonant for me. It discussed storytelling, and how telling yourself a certain kind of story about your life can give a positive meaning to it. There were examples of people who had horrible traumas, but told themselves a certain story to make sense of it, and thus were able to use the trauma to make their lives richer. That underlying message is close to the kind of positive-thinking mumbo-jumbo that annoys me, but the focus on psychology and scientific evidence kept it anchored in reality. Csikszentmihalyi noted that all of the people in his research who were able to make this kind of positive spin on trauma had memories of adults telling or reading them stories as children, and many of those who were not able to move beyond trauma had no such memories. Just one more reason kids need books: to shore them up and help them weather future storms. The way we narrativize our lives is of great interest to me. I’ve always thought that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’ve done are crucial, but it’s nice to know that science agrees.


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