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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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

One Response to Get with the Flow

  1. There’s a bunch of controversy out there on this issue, but I tend to agree with the blogger.  It’s generally a matter of viewpoint.

    Like

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