Book of the Month: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Who is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?
What makes a life worth living? This is a question that the distinguished professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first began to wonder when he was a child during WWII. He noticed that a few adults he knew were able to withstand the tragedies of war and live content lives, despite the undeniable devastation they had faced. After exploring philosophy and religion, Csikszentmihalyi encountered the field of psychology, a subject that resonated so strongly with him that he co-initiated the domain of positive psychology; based on the question he had asked himself as a child.
What is flow?
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is a summary of Csikszentmihalyi decades-long study of flow, a term he coined to mean a state of joy, creativity, and the process of total involvement with life, where nothing else seems to matter. Characteristics of a flow state include deep, but effortless involvement, forgetting frustrations, and not noticing time pass. This is colloquially referred to as being “in the zone”. If we are to define anxiety as a condition where we are under skilled for the tasks we do, and boredom as a circumstance where our skills over qualify us for a task, flow and enjoyment appear at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, where we are challenged without being overwhelmed. Csikszentmihalyi explains that when we invest our attention in tasks that are challenging but attainable, we become increasingly complex beings and our selves are said to grow.
Who can benefit from reading this book?
Though Csikszentmihalyi’s childhood circumstances were atypical, this book is aimed at people from all walks of life, especially those in conventional situations, as the purpose of this book is “to present general principles and examples of how people have transformed meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment.” While our average income and our access to information and entertainment have increased significantly over the past few decades, studies show that our average happiness has remained the same. This helps to prove that happiness is not dependent on material gain, but rather that it is an internal state of being. In fact, studies on flow have frequently indicated that above all else, the quality of life is dependent on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people. Given this finding, this book is particularly insightful for employees and employers.
Where can we create flow?
Csikszentmihalyi tells us that we can find flow in the humble jobs of daily life, and that by transforming a routine job into a flow-producing experience, we become more conscious, goal-directed, and skillful people. Though most jobs are not designed to directly make us happier, the structure of a job, including its built-in goals and rules, is conducive to flow states. Although this book isn’t a how-to guide, Csikszentmihalyi offers some steps to induce flow, including restructuring tasks to maintain concentration and make progress measurable. This is useful to workers, who can find more fulfillment in their jobs, and develop a strong sense of purpose that is not self-seeking. Additionally, it provides insight to employers who want to generate a more inspiring and productive work environment.