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“You don’t conquer anything except things in yourself”. Flow: A book review

Flow is “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”.

Flow is “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”.

This is the definition that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American psychologist, gives to “flow”, a state of mind which corresponds to the feeling of “optimal experience”. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is the title of the book here reviewed, in which the author explores the concept more in depth and presents possible ways of experiencing it.

To understand how to reach the state of flow, one must first comprehend the concept of chaos, which, in psychological terms, refers to the lack of inner order, also described with the term “psychic entropy”. Psychic entropy occurs whenever information that conflicts with our goals and intentions affect, and disrupts, consciousness. This condition is associated with pain, anxiety, rage, jealousy. A prolonged lack of inner order drivers to a state of “ontological anxiety”: a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that nothing makes sense.

Our happiness, therefore, does not depend on the control we exert over the external environment, but rather on the level of inner harmony in our self. The external control, in fact, may be fundamental for our physical survival, but it does not lead us to domination over chaos, or mastery over consciousness. As soon as basic needs are met, new desires arise, giving birth to a non-ending loop. Desires are not a problem per se, as long as we derive pleasure from the struggle to achieve them. But when we become too focused on reaching them, we sometime cease to enjoy the present.

In general, one might think of consciousness as the reality we subjectively experience. Although there may exists something outside of consciousness, we have evidence only of what finds a place in it.

It is important to understand that our nervous system has limits on how much information it can process at any given time. What follows, is that our consciousness is limited too. It is what we call “attention” that selects the relevant bits of information to enter our consciousness. We can think to attention as psychic energy, that must be carefully dissipated as it determines the quality of our experiences.

As previously anticipated, optimal experience is the opposite condition of psychic entropy, as the information that enter the self is congruent with goals, and our psychic energy flows without effort. Chaos is transformed into order and control over attention is established. The sensation is that of floating. In concrete terms, it represents “what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt – sails, hull, wind, and sea hummin a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic front of the astonished creator”. 

As a result of experiencing flow, the self becomes more complex, by combining both differentiation (moving towards uniqueness) and integration (merging ideas and entities beyond the self).

Associated with the continuous encountering of optimal experience and the rise in complexity of the self, is the condition of enjoyment. This is characterized by a movement forward, a sense of accomplishment, as it refers to the state in which a person not only satisfies a need or a desire (which brings pleasure), but also achieves something new, unexpected. For it is possible to experience pleasure without investment of psychic energy, enjoyment, instead, requires the presence of attention.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.

Many games and activities are structured in such a way to potentially generate a state of flow when practiced. In general, each flow activity provides “a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality”.

The manifestation of enjoyment requires the occurrence of some components. First, there needs to be the possibility of completing a certain task. Furthermore, the task usually presents clear goals and provides immediate feedback, as we concentrate on reaching the goal and perceiving the feedbacks. We should also be able to exercise a sense of control over our actions (being able to influence them). The sense of duration of time is altered, as consciousness of the self disappears, before emerging stronger when the experience is over. As we are not preoccupied with our self, we have a chance to expand the concept of who we are, by enriching ourselves with new skills and achievements. Our attention is completely absorbed by the activity, which becomes spontaneous, and awareness of our self vanishes.

The most important characteristic of optimal experience is that it is an autotelic experience, which means it has an end in itself: “the mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication”.

People need to find a meaningful goal towards which to invest their psychic energy. Those who manage to define a self-seeking purpose are intrinsically motivated in their actions and have enough psychic energy free to observe the external environment objectively and discover new opportunities for action. For an autotelic self, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness and therefore from the proper self. People should try to develop an autotelic personality, instead of a narcissistic one. As Bertrand Russell stated: “gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection”.

The graph below, taken from the book, shows the flow channel, a condition in which the challenges faced by an individual and the skills she possesses are balanced and tend to increase together. If the difficulty of the task increases alone, she will end up in a state of anxiety, as her previous skills will not match the new challenge. On the other hand, if she improves her skills but keep practicing the same challenges, the result will then be boredom.

Figure 1 Flow Channel graph: why the complexity of consciousness increases as a result of flow experiences by Wesley Fryer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

To stay in the flow channel, people need to follow the Latin motto of the modern Olympic games: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which stands for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. Following the message of this motto, the author proposes the essential steps to reach flow: 1) set an overall goal, and many subgoals; 2) measure progress in terms of the goals chosen; 3) concentrate on what you are doing; 4) develop the necessary skills to interact with the available opportunities; 5) keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

The second half of the book is mainly focused on putting in practice the concepts previously introduced, particularly by showing concrete examples of real life. Furthermore, the concepts of culture, work, family, solitude and others are analyzed, and examples of how an autotelic personality would behave in such situations are given.

In the last chapter the author proposes a simplistic description of how people should find meaning nowadays, almost presented as an easily applicable formula. In the very last pages of the book, the author calls back the concepts of differentiation and integration previously introduced, by reaching the idealistic wish for a reintegration of humanity after decades of individualization, with the final aim to resolve the problem of meaning through integration of the humankind, as the individual’s purpose would (somehow) merge with (a non easily difanable) universal flow.

Finally, it is explored how to turn life into a unified flow experience. “If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feeling will be in harmony and the separate parts of life will fit together – and each activity will ‘make sense’ in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future”. As the author emphasized how the ultimate goal could be anything provided it is compelling enough, I believe it makes more sense to think about it as a behavioral ideal, a way of living, for it is easier to devote all our actions to it. As Bertrand Russell said: “let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile”.


Sources:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 1st edition. Harper & Row, 1990. Link. Some quotes taken from the book.

Quotes taken by Russell, Bertrand. The Conquest of Happiness, 1930