Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi opens his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” with what may be the quintessential paradox of our bedraggled 20th Century.
“Despite the fact that even the least affluent among us are surrounded by material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago . . . people often end up feeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.”
The author, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, approaches this apparent paradox with a wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity, along with the social scientist’s standard arsenal of questionnaires and interviews. Csikszentmihalyi asks what it is that leaves certain individuals feeling happy, alive, fulfilled. What imbues their lives with meaning and purpose?
The author draws on the words of an extremely wide range of “informants,” from assembly line workers to businessmen, rock climbers to musicians, teen-agers to septuagenarians, in the United States and abroad.
With their help, Csikszentmihalyi arrives at an insight that many of us can intuitively grasp, despite our insistent (and culturally supported) denial of this truth. That is, it is not what happens to us that determines our happiness, but the manner in which we make sense of that reality.
We are happiest not in pursuit of external remedies to our malaise--money, sex, or power for their own sake, but when we are fully absorbed in meaningful activity--be it intellectual, physical, artistic or spiritual--to the degree that we can “forget” ourselves, only to reemerge from such an experience feeling even more ourselves.
At the same time, we are more fulfilled to the degree our lives “make sense” to us. We are, after all, a meaning-making creature, and we are happiest when we are evolving a “greater complexity of consciousness.”
Developmental psychology has demonstrated that the growth of the self is predicated on active interaction with the environment, at the physical, cognitive and emotional level.
The author suggests that as adults we cease this active participation with our world. We let others ascribe to us our meaning. We lose what Walker Percy called our “sovereignty,” and, with that, any chance for genuine happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi is fairly explicit about the nature of the activities that are most conducive to this sort of growth.
They offer an opportunity for deep concentration, a sense of control and satisfaction, behavior that is goal-directed and bounded by rules, and the disappearance of concern for the self. When these conditions converge, we experience what the author calls “flow.”
A “flow” experience, unlike the passive experiences of shopping, watching television, taking drugs (all of which tend to numb or distract us from our feelings), generally leads to that “greater complexity of consciousness,” continually expanding our sense of who we are. And it feels good, for we become the architects, not the recipients of our life’s meaning.
The content of “flow” experiences is not critical: For the rock climber, “flow” can arise in the purposeful absorption in the task of scaling a precipice; whereas for an itinerant quoted at length, “flow” is experienced in the effort to fit life experiences into his evolving knowledge of God’s will.
This book also offers a deep cultural critique. Although Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges there are psychological and neurological impediments to experiencing “flow,” he attacks 20th-Century Western culture for fostering the belief that happiness and fulfillment are materially rooted and outside the self.
These arguments and observations are not altogether original; yet the manner in which Csikszentmihalyi integrates research on consciousness, personal psychology and spirituality is illuminating.
At times the book leaves the reader with the sense of an overreaching and ambitious application of a good idea, and yet there are important questions left unaddressed.
Why, for instance, are some people able to create the kind of meaning out of early trauma that allows them to go on to live productive and fulfilling lies, while others get bogged down in despair? And how to differentiate between the murderer and the artist, the one utterly absorbed and even finding meaning in the details of the execution, the other in his creation? But perhaps it is not for a book such as this, but rather for the novelist or the theologian to shed a more penetrating light on such questions.