Get with the Flow


You may have trouble pronouncing his name, but Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is the guru when it comes to “the psychology of optimal experience.” FLOW is one of those books you might want to read once every year or so and dip into periodically for the juicy bits that you’ve marked.

Flow is that state of consciousness when you are contentedly living in the moment, experiencing that energizing balance of three factors: a worthwhile task, significant challenge in performing the task, and the capacity and resources to complete the task.

The book is Csikszentmihaly’s answer to the question, “When do people feel most happy?” He answers:

. . . the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. (p. 3)

The message is that we don’t have to wait for the best moments in life to come to us. We can arrange for their occurrence and increase their frequency. This involves calculated risk. It begins with the identification of some task-related goal that we care about. The task must be challenging; it must tax our physical or mental resources (or both). But achieving our goal must be within reach. Ideally, this goal will be attainable along a growth curve, with stages of challenge representing significant accomplishments toward the realization of the ultimate objective.

I’ve experienced this with downhill skiing, sea kayaking, sailing, and motorcycling. These are physical activities that involve a definite mental component. Foreign travel produces a similar effect for me as I navigate the challenges of unfamiliar languages, foreign currency, and methods of transportation. Public speaking is another arena for the experience of flow, since each engagement is unique, and each form of presentation presents special challenges. For example, public debate on the question of God’s existence is different that a radio interview about the Academy Awards.

Csikszentmihaly is especially good on how to create flow in the ordinary activities of work and family life. At one point he writes,

People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with. The same person can make the morning wonderful and the evening miserable. (pp. 166-67)

The principles developed in this book also apply to our experiences of adversity. Even tragic events can be seen as positive. Csikszentmihaly distinguishes between positive and negative responses to stress, between “transformational coping” and “regressive coping,” and develops strategies for “cheating chaos” through transformational coping. Would you like to know how to “transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge”? See Chapter 9 of Flow.

In his more recent book, Csikszentmihaly has focused on the relationship between flow and creativity.

If you’ve read Csikszentmihaly, share what you think of his work. Do you have any favorite passages? When have you experienced “flow”? Have you discovered ways to experience adversity as meaningful opportunity?

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Eyewitness Earthquake Report


It’s all over the news. An earthquake of moderate magnitude occurred shortly before noon today in the Los Angeles area. I was at home in Brea working at my desk. The quake is said to have centered in Chino Hills, about 12 miles by road from where I live. As the crow flies, we’re within 10 miles of the epicenter.

My two daughters and our niece were here with me, upstairs from my study. My first reaction was to get to them and gather everyone together.

I’d say the quake was felt at our house for about 20-30 seconds. Some minutes later we felt a distinct but brief aftershock. This quake produced a general shake of our house, and I did wonder while it was happening how long it could continue without causing severe damage to our home. There was a lot of creaking and things were falling from walls and shelves. But we don’t have any visible damage. Most impressive was the sloshing of the water in our in-ground pool.

The initial report was that the earthquake was of a 5.8 magnitude. It’s now been officially designated a 5.4 quake. There are TV news reports of numerous ongoing aftershocks in the Chino Hills area. But we’ve only felt the one. There’s also a report of a fire caused by the quake in the nearby town of La Habra Heights. A Ralph’s market in Diamond Bar, also close by, has closed to assess damage to products and restore order.

News coverage of the event has been interesting. Some of it has been a little melodramatic. But it does inform people about the behavior of earthquakes and remind them of the need for preparedness should there be a more sizable quake in the future.

Now might be a good time to enjoy an earthquake movie! Grab the popcorn and relax while you watch the 1974 film Earthquake, starring Charleton Heston and Ava Gardner, about a quake in Los Angeles that wreaks unimaginable havoc.

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