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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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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.
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.