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Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, with a new Introduction by the author Paperback – August 1, 2002
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What really makes people glad to be alive? What are the inner experiences that make life worthwhile? For more than two decades Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied those states in which people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment. His studies revealed that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is 'flow' - a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in an activity and results in the achievement of a perfect state of happiness. Flow has become the classic work on happiness and a major contribution to contemporary psychology. It examines such timeless issues as the challenge of lifelong learning; family relationships; art, sport and sex as 'flow'; the pain of loneliness; optimal use of free time; and how to make our lives meaningful.
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We're told that "psychic entropy" (or lack of control over conciseness, or simply random thoughts), is the thing that prevents happiness. Flow, on the other hand, is "optimal experience", the reverse of psychic entropy. Actually, this scale from psychic entropy to flow *is* the measure of happiness. Then, the book gives some conditions for achieving flow -- basically finding tasks that are challenging enough, but not too much, together with unambiguous and fast feedback (I found that part somewhat vague). And there's a lot of examples of flow experiences. Everything can become flow, if challenges are sought and overcome. Every chapter fits into a solid book structure.
But it's not clear the structure makes sense. Yes, being engaged in activity at proper challenge level can be very rewarding. Is it an answer for everything? Is unhappiness indeed the same as psychic entropy? Maybe if one cannot concentrate on anything at all, yes, but hardly in all cases. Is suppressing distressing thoughts by finding a random engaging experience the best approach? No matter what that experience is? True, the book does mention that some flow experiences are not necessary good, but then goes on giving a lot of examples of flow, regardless of their value. If I'm constantly bothered by a bunch of unresolved problems, would it be wise to go and find some flow experience, to suppress the thoughts about these problems? Maybe find flow in washing dishes? Even if I manage to get very very engaged in that, will I feel a slightest bit better afterwards?
The book was originally published in 1990, and it shows. I found no mention of Daniel Kahneman' concept of experiencing self and remembering self, which means that no matter how pleasurable flow might be in the moment, it is only one part of the story (see "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). There's no mention of Daniel Gilbert, who claims that people mostly stay at their baseline happiness level, and so expending great effort to become happier is probably a mistake (see "Stumbling on Happiness"). Instead, we find some favorable mentions of Mr. Freud, for the first time in all the books I read.
Flow is probably an important part of good life experience, and this book is important in giving examples of flow. But equating flow with happiness is very controversial, and too much of the book is based on that equality.
His topic, meaningfulness, is so vague and vast that he fills the book with everything he can think of, from asides about teenage vandals to a summary of Hatha Yoga to advice on making love last. Unfortunately, this isn't one of those books that's an "education unto itself," or something. He's not that erudite or well-informed. Csikszentmihalyi frequently gets things plain wrong. He has a skewed, dismal view of the Industrial Revolution, for example, and a ludicrous theory of Taoist philosophy. In other sections, he's presenting bland, reductive retreads of Proust, Nietzsche, existentialism, and aesthetic theory.
You'll get the same insights from any of those authors, and so much more. Skip this book. He even quotes "Love means never having to say you're sorry" without realizing it's from the movie Love Story...and what is that quote doing in a book about the feeling of involvement in things? I don't know. You won't either.
The book focuses on ways that we can encourage flow in our lives, and also talks about the perils of overreliance on a particular flow activity - ie., the chess prodigy who is not competent in social gatherings, or the artist who only enjoys their life when painting but not outside of that activity. It is about trying to see the potential for flow in our daily lives, using it and harnessing it to achieve worthwhile goals, and encouraging flow in a multitude of mundane and transcendental activities. This book made a lot of sense to me - it explained the sense of control as being perhaps more important than conventional notions of 'happiness' and that satisfaction depends on feeling that one has some control over their circumstances and actions. This is true even in the most controlled of circumstances, i.e., individuals who were political prisoners was given as one example.
I think the lessons and principles in this book were very useful and inspiring - it doesn't give a specific, step-by-step plan for making your life flow, but it does provide a useful background and guideline on ways to give life more meaning.