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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) Paperback – July 1, 2008
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“Flow is important....The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Rethinks what motivates people.” (Newsweek)
“Explore[s] a happy state of mind called flow, the feeling of complete engagement in a creative or playful activity” (Time magazine)
From the Back Cover
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's famous investigations of "optimal experience" have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.
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Mr. Csikszentmihalyi insists... and insists... and insists that his work is scientific and states over and over the academic rigor that has gone into his studies - not to mention quote after quote taken from Greek philosophers and modern psychologists that always almost exactly fail to be relevant to the chapter they appear in. It seems he uses them to increase the size of the references section.
Then, he proceeds to shatter this illusion he creates. He provides irrelevant discussion and experimental data such as the section in chapter 4 entitled "neurophysiology and flow." In it, he speaks of an experiment which shows absolutely nothing about the relationship between neurophysiology and flow. At the end of the chapter he writes:
"The neurological evidence does not, however, prove that some individuals have inherited a genetic advantage in controlling attention and therefore experiencing flow. The findings could be explained in terms of learning rather than inheritance."
Later, he speaks of martial arts, making all sorts of errors. He claims that judo, jujitsu, kung fu, karate, tae kwon do, aikido and T'ai Chi ch'uan all originate in China (106). He says that "Those who can perform it well claim that fighting becomes a joyous artistic performance..." Hmmm.... Many martial artists (myself included) might object to the use of the word "joy" in describing the flow that comes in an intense combat situation. "No-mind" or Bruce Lee's "serious play" is not "joy." It seems that Mr. Csikszentmihalyi ran out of examples to expand his 50 page book into a 250 page one so he started making stuff up.
Don't buy this book - certainly don't read the whole thing. I already wasted my time doing this. You don't have to also :-)
If you are curious about the concept, go to your local bookstore, find this book, turn to page 208, the summary, and read until page 213. That's the book in a nutshell. Then, read from page 72 to 77. Although repetitive and filled with more examples than "How to Win Friends and Influence People" it is filled with valuable information. If you are still curious, read the first paragraph on page 49 on what a flow experience in like. Then, put the book down. Continue to browse. The psychology section is filled with interesting and worthwhile titles!
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.