Why Flow Matters
One of the better books I've read in the last few years is Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. It's a doozy. The author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, does a fantastic and thorough job of showcasing how doing something that's a bit of a challenge makes you happier and more successful. This is a welcome idea in an age where everyone is telling you to chase your passion (including yours truly). Ultimately, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that we're happiest and best when we are pushed and we overcome some kind of obstacle. Of course, we must find this delicate balance of the "right" amount of challenge at work and at home, otherwise we can get very discouraged very quickly. In fact, the right challenge can give your life deep and incredible meaning.
His idea of "flow" is what's commonly meant when it is said that an athlete is in "the zone." Action and awareness merge such that nearly everything comes naturally.
Flow is a thick read, but well worth your time. Here are some quotes for you:
About Life and Leisure
- A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.
- The information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of life.
- There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.
- Because enjoyable activities have clear goals, stable rules, and challenge well matched to skills, there is little opportunity for the self to be threatened.
- Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did.
- A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life.
- Purpose gives direction to one's efforts, but it does not necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead into all sorts of trouble, at which point one gets tempted to give them up and find some less demanding script by which to order one's actions. The price one pays for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while one may achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it is likely that it will end up empty and void of meaning.
- Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions: Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future? Is the price that I - and others - will have to pay worth it? Will I be able to live with myself if I accomplish it?
About Focus and Self
- The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.
- Every piece of information we process gets evaluated for its bearing on the self. Does it threaten our goals, does it support them, or is it neutral? News of the fall of the stock market will upset the banker, but it might reinforce the sense of self of the political activist. A new piece of information will either create disorder in consciousness, by getting us all worked up to face the threat, or it will reinforce our goals, thereby freeing up psychic energy.
- It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.
- Optimal experience is a form of energy, and energy can be used either to help or to destroy.
- When adversity threatens to paralyze us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction in which to invest psychic energy, a direction that lies outside the reach of external forces.
About Why You Shouldn't Watch So Much TV
- In the roughly one-third of the day that is free of obligations, in their precious "leisure" time, most people in fact seem to use their minds as little as possible. The largest part of free time - almost half of it for American adults - is spent in front of the television set.
- Although average Americans have plenty of free time, and ample access to leisure activities, they do not, as a result, experience flow often. Potentiality does not imply actuality, and quantity does not translate into quality. For example, TV watching, the single most often pursued leisure activity in the United States today, leads to the flow condition very rarely. In fact, working people achieve the flow experience - deep concentration, high and balanced challenges and skills, a sense of control and satisfaction - about four times as often on their jobs, proportionately, as they do when they are watching television.
- The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere.
- Most jobs and many leisure activities - especially those involving the passive consumption of mass media - are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow them to, they can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving only feeble husks.
- Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.
- The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that goals are usually clear, and feedback immediate.
- Any skill worth developing requires that one invest psychic energy in it at the beginning.
- Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal.
About Relationships and Community
- Quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.
- Every relationship requires a reorienting of attention, a repositioning of goals.
- A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form. It is someone who shares our goal of self-realization, and therefore is willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity entails.
- A person is part of a family or a friendship to the extent he invests psychic energy in goals shared with other people.
- A community should be judged good not because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges.
- Contrary to what we were led to believe, it is more satisfying to help another person than to beat him down, or that it is more enjoyable to talk with one's two-year-old than to play golf with the company president.
- The point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along.
- Having a record of the past can make a great contribution to the quality of life. It frees us from the tyranny of the present, and makes it possible for consciousness to revisit former times.
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