Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Introduction

Just stop trying, the author’s surname is extremely hard to read (you can get close by saying: “Cheek sent me high”). But this didn’t stop him from writing an extremely useful book. In “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, there is a lot of information on how to reach that state when everything you do seems to flow naturally. Mihaly (phew, at least the author’s name isn’t that hard to pronounce) didn’t just sit down a wrote a book- prior to writing his masterpiece, he gathered vast amounts of knowledge- he is, after all, a psychologist.

Would you like to understand the true meaning of happiness? This is what it’s all about, and everything Mihaly writes about seems to be linked with finding happiness. There is one little thingy here- you cannot actually find happiness. It can only be experienced in the present moment, it’s not an object- you cannot simply stumble upon heaps of happiness that were hidden somewhere. You have to work on it every day. And this is what Mihaly teaches you- how to become happy by learning to attain the state of flow (or optimal experience).

Before we go on to the main thing, we will explain what the “flow” is- it happens when you are totally absorbed in an activity, when you completely lose the sense of time and space. Musicians, while improvising, are in the state of flow, for instance.

Happiness

We have already drawn a link between the state of flow and happiness. Now we will make it even more transparent.

A lot of people think that happiness equals money, fame, and other material pleasures. While this is sometimes true, much more often it isn’t. How many celebrities have stayed depressive and completely unhappy, in spite of their wealth and fame? Amy Winehouse most surely falls in this category- she simply had it all. People loved how she looked, she was a fabulous singer, not to mention her payroll. And still, she finished her life as an unhappy, washed-up drug addict. Something was missing.

We now know what Amy missed. She missed that state of flow. She might have enjoyed her first gigs, but as she got more and more famous, it seemed that she simply didn’t like what she did. In other words, she missed that optimal experience.

Experiences

Some characteristics of optimal experiences

Optimal experiences don’t just lie around waiting to be picked up. You have to work hard in order to have these experiences. These are some requirements:

1.    Choose your challenge wisely– if the task is too easy, you will lack the motivation to do it. If it’s too hard, your self-esteem will suffer. So be careful to choose tasks that are neither too hard or easy.

2.    Your goals should be clear and transparent– don’t say things like: “ I want to become a better person” or “I want to become the best ever”. Not only are these goals too ambitious, but they are also extremely vague. The goals you choose should be clear. This is necessary in order for you to appropriately evaluate your efficiency.

3.    The feedback– always look for the feedback. Even if it’s negative, it will be good for you as you will learn how to improve. Positive feedback is naturally good because it boosts your morale.

4.    Perseverance– keep trying. Sure, everybody speaks this, for a reason. There simply should be no space left for demotivation. With every failure, you are closer to success.

Let’s put this into perspective. Let’s say that you want to learn how to play the guitar. First thing you’ll have to do is to choose a reasonably hard goal. This goal should be clear and easy to measure. For instance, you might choose to learn how to play an easy rock song- perhaps “Yesterday” by the Beatles. This is a good goal because it’s not that hard (although it is challenging) and you will get immediate feedback. You can also always compare your playing with the original song- this means that you have feedback.

Writing Work

Some activities that can help you reach the flow

Mihaly mentions a lot of different actions that are linked closely with the flow- most importantly, art, play, and sports. So if you find it hard to “lose yourself” in some activity, it might be smart to start practicing sports, art, and play.

Play is very good to loosen you up a bit. We grow up with an illusion that only children are allowed to play- but this is one of the biggest lies ever. Everyone can play if the moment is right- hide and seek with your kids? Why not? But don’t do this the way other grown-ups do it- a lot of people “play” with their children, apparently, but not everybody enjoys it.

Finally, you can choose for yourself. Dance seems like a good activity for optimal experiences.

Meditation is also associated with the flow. One of the most important tenets of mediation is to be here now. When you are in the state of flow, you are doing just this. You forget about everything else and focus only on the present moment. This is why meditation is linked closely with optimal experiences.

Embrace solitude

People are social animals. However, too many people feel extremely bad when they are alone. They think that solitude is something bad, that it should be avoided. But this is absolutely untrue. Loneliness doesn’t equal solitude.

Most importantly, a lot of optimal experiences can only happen while alone. For the “flow” you need to be concentrated on what you are doing. Needless to say, this is much easier to do when you are sitting alone in a calm, quiet environment.

Mihaly explains this very nicely:

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

You will fail sooner or later

The sooner you accept this bitter truth, the sooner you will succeed. Sure, there are some individuals who never fail, but these people do nothing in their lives. The ones who do try have to fail sometimes.

The most important thing about this is not to take things personally. When you take things too seriously, you start to doubt your own worth. In other words, there are several ways you can deal with unsuccessful attempts:

1.    You can say- “I failed, thus I am completely incapable of doing anything.”. Needless to say, this is a bad way to accept things. It will seriously diminish your self-esteem.

2.    Or you can say something like: “I failed, but that doesn’t mean that I am completely incapable. Sometimes I am incapable, and other times I am rather good at doing a lot of stuff. Just because I failed once doesn’t mean that I will always.”

It is clear which way of thinking is better. Most importantly, the second way of thinking is closer to reality. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy uses it as its basic tenet.

Conclusion

We will briefly sum up the most important points of this summary:

1.    Happiness– A lot of people think that happiness equals money, fame, and other material pleasures. While this is sometimes true, much more often it isn’t.

2.    Characteristics of optimal experiences– Choose your challenge wisely- Your goals should be clear and transparent- The feedback- Perseverance- keep trying

3.    Activities that help you reach the flow– art, play, and music

4.    Embrace solitude– People are social animals. However, too many people feel extremely bad when they are alone. They think that solitude is something bad, that it should be avoided. But this is absolutely untrue. Loneliness doesn’t equal solitude.

5.    You will fail sooner or later– learn to accept this.

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