Book Review: Flow by Csikszentmihalyi


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.


Support for renaming Unitarian Universalism

-This is just an individual view, and only a tentative one-

For the past few years, I have belonged to a Unitarian Universalist congregation here in the DC suburbs of Maryland. My level of participation has been quite low, almost non-existent, for the past year. If anyone were to ask me my religion, I’d probably answer ‘running!’

First off, let me say that Unitarian Universalism in its current form is a great thing: non-dogmatic, a place to build and serve community, and a place to find fellowship and higher purpose regardless of background religion.

So here’s my argument for renaming the movement: the name contains nothing but dogma and archaic religious background.

The word Unitarian means belief in one God rather than the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. On this issue, I say: I don’t know! But perhaps we can at least extend to most Christians a form of Pascal’s wager and give them the benefit of the doubt (which is how UUs treat most religious traditions).

In fact, I’m quite fond of many aspects of the Christian tradition. That’s why the name kind of rankles me.

Univeralism refers to the notion of universal salvation (or, put negatively, the non-existence of damnation). Again, I say, I don’t know! Yet there are certain US public figures today who add merit to the idea of damnation.

Philosopher James Park has written a clear and thoughtful outline of why and how the name might be changed. Perhaps it makes sense that an existentialist philosopher (who happens to also be a UU) wrote this outline. Words are meaningful. When the words are entirely besides the point, or even counterproductive, clearer and more meaningful words should be used.

Why hold on to old heresies? Well, I understand the argument that its important to honor your ancestors. The original Unitarian heresy of not believing in the Trinity is an off-shoot of the larger Protestant revolution. It’s similar to Martin Luther’s heresy against the church in which he was a priest. Universalism is a similar iteration of an evolving faith. Thus the name is a compact history lesson that refers to the UU movement’s original basis.

To a degree, most religions face similar issues when it comes to issues of dogma. But the thing that is good about UU is that it isn’t very dogmatic. It revolves around seven principles with which I think most thoughtful people (including religious people) can agree.

Thus I think that simpler, clearer words make more sense. My suggestion is to call it “liberal religion.” I realize this name has its own historical baggage (in some places liberal means left-winger and in others it means capitalist) and opens itself to cultural mockery, but I am just learning that mockery is a great test of whether something is true. The English philosopher Shaftesbury argued for the positive aspects of ridicule/comedy as a means of discovering what’s true since what is true stands up quite well to mockery. What do contemporary UUs stand for? To me liberal region is closer to the mark.

To me the name “Unitarian Universalist” just doesn’t ring true, but that’s just one man’s perspective. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop going to my UU congregation. I rather think this piece is in the spirit of the place. If anything, the name still means a capacity for creative skepticism and freedom of belief, so I can live with it even if I would change the name were I king.