Book Review: Flow by Csikszentmihalyi

flow

One hallmark of good philosophy is timelessness. The observations of Plato and Aristotle are relevant today. Much has changed since the dawn of Western civilization, but the best philosophy survives and thrives. People have been reading Lord Montaigne since the sixteenth century, though his stature as a lucid and wise thinker continues to grow.

Most people would probably use the word psychology rather than philosophy to describe Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, a book that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published in 1990. Cracking it open, I fully expected to read a typical psychology book: A few narrative vignettes with clunky references to research studies. This, in my opinion, is often the weak point of books that strive to give the impression of scientific rigor. I’m all for scientific rigor, but the emphasis on detailing experimental process rather than meaningful synthesis is, in a word, boring.

On the contrary, to my surprise, Flow is one of the most elegant, succinct, well-written, and persuasive philosophical works I’ve encountered. It has almost instantly become one of my favorite books–one to which I hope to return over and over. It’s that good. Instead of experimental weeds, the book delivers a landscape of human potential. It navigates this landscape with the hypothesis that climbing the highest heights requires the practice of flow.

What is flow? Csikszentmihalyi’s composing this book undoubtedly exemplifies flow, which he describes as follows:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy–or attention–is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in a consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual. (p. 6)

Flow is thus a kind of trance in which one’s best work is done. It is the state in which a person can reach their highest potential. It can involve creative intelligence as easily as bodily strength, and my guess is that it typically involves both.

What follows from this description of flow is Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant synthesis of how flow can be generated and controlled, how positive meaning can be discovered in life, and how this discovery process within each individual has bearing on the future of humanity. Sounds philosophical, right? I thought so too. I believe that with this book, Csikszentmihalyi fully became the extraordinary individual he describes.

Flow was published a few years before the internet became commonplace (manual typewriters were still used) and just as the collapse of the Iron Curtain gave rise to new geopolitical realities. To return to the observation that good philosophy is timeless, reading this book helps me better understand today’s dilemmas. The author spends a good deal of time discussing the human tendencies and actions that tend to prevent flow: things like retreating to the television set at the end of the day and allowing perception to be pushed around by profit-oriented mass media. Csikszentmihalyi thinks that the natural state of the human mind is chaotic, and that ordinary life is characterized by entropy. Flow is the ability to overcome the chaos and temporarily hold entropy in abeyance.

How does this relate to today’s issues? I think the reactionary politics we have in 2018 is fueled by people not becoming citizens, which requires education and effort. Instead of being citizens, they consume ideas marketed to them online and on TV. Trump shaped a popular perception through reality TV. The ads worked, but they masked the man’s chaotic nature. In the future it may be someone of more progressive persuasion that does the same. We live in a time characterized by a sense of increasing chaos. Entropy is no fun. Those who can master the art of flow have an opportunity to help change this reality, at least for a time, and lead the way to less chaos.

In short, this is an inspiring book–one of the best I have ever read–and I highly recommend it to anyone.

 

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