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FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE

(Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)

 

Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi

 

One must particularly achieve control over instinctive drives to achieve a healthy independence of society, for as long as we respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own ends.

 

The knowledge - or wisdom - one needs for emancipating consciousness is not cumulative.  It is not a cognitive skill and as well as intelligence requires commitment of emotions and will.  It is not enough to know how to do it, one must do it consistently and it is a painfully slow process to modify our own habits and desires.

 

Pleasure by itself does not bring happiness.  We can experience pleasure (e.g. eating, sleeping, sex) without an investment of psychic energy.  Enjoyment on the other hand, happens only as a result of an unusual amount of attention.  Pleasure is fleeting and, unlike enjoyment, does not bring complexity (growth) to the self.  If one only invests energy in new directions solely for extrinsic rewards, one may end up no longer enjoying life, and pleasures become the only source of positive experience.  Without enjoyment life can be endured and can even be pleasant.  But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment.

 

Eight Components of Enjoyment

 

1.    Confronting tasks that we have a chance of completing.

2.    Concentration.

3.    Concentration is possible because the task has clear goals.

4.    Task provides immediate feedback.

5.    A deep, effortless involvement removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.

6.    Enjoyable experiences allow one to exercise a sense of control over one’s actions.

7.    Concern for self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.

8.    Sense of time is altered - hours pass by in minutes.

 

When experience is intrinsically rewarding, one’s life is justified in the present, instead of one being held hostage to a hypothetical future, but we must constantly re-evaluate what we do, lest habits and past ‘wisdom’ blind us to new possibilities.  The flow experience - like anything else - is not "good" in an absolute sense, but only in that it has the potential to make life richer, more intense and meaningful.  One must distinguish between useful and harmful forms of flow, making the most of the former and limiting the latter.

Commencement of learning something is a flow situation – everything is new and flow absorption is present as one struggles to master the skill.  As one progresses, either boredom will ensue because there is no more challenge (the skill has been learned at that level) or anxiety occurs because a bigger challenge than we can cope with presents itself. Either way, one wants to get back to flow, either by overcoming the anxiety challenge by becoming more skilled, or taking on a challenge that will overcome the boredom, thus getting back into flow at a more complex level.

 

Effects of Family on Autotelic (Self-contained Goal)Experience

Happiness (flow) in a family depends greatly on how much energy members invest in the mutual relationship and especially each other’s goals.

 

If a person is unwilling to adjust personal goals when starting a relationship, then a lot of what happens in that relationship will produce disorder in the person's consciousness because new patterns of interaction will conflict with old patterns of expectations.  If not revised, old goals will produce frustration and entropy - if goals are changed the self will change too, a necessary transformation for a positive relationship.

 

To make family life enjoyable, positive goals are necessary to focus psychic energies of parents and children on common tasks.  Some goals can be general and long-term e.g. planning a particular life style.  For such goals to result in interactions that will increase the complexity of its members, the family must be both differentiated and integrated.  Differentiation encourages each person to develop unique traits, maximize personal skills, set individual goals.  Integration guarantees that what happens to one affects all the others - each person's goals matter to all others.

 

Short term goals are also important, planning a vacation, playing a game that a family is willing to share so as to be physically together as well as involved in an enjoyable joint activity.  Family activities, like other flow processes, should also provide clear feedback - keeping open channels of communication.  Unless this is so there is no opportunity to reduce inevitable tension. Unless the members of the family invest psychic energy in the relationship (creativity, communication) conflicts are inevitable, because each has goals that are somewhat divergent from the goals of the other members.  Without good lines of communication, the distortions will become amplified, until the relationship falls apart.

 

Instead of abandoning this plan as children mature and express the opinion that family activities as a group are "dumb", the more fruitful if more difficult strategy is to find a new set of activities that will continue to keep the family group involved.

 

Involving children in the flow activities of the parents at an early stage may attract their attention and, finding them challenging, will help them grow.  Also, if parents talked more about their ideals and dreams - even if these had been frustrated - the children might develop the ambition needed to break through the complacency of their present selves.

 

Unconditional acceptance of the child by the parents allows him to relax and explore the world without fear; otherwise psychic energy is directed to his own protection, reducing the amount he can use for flow experiences.  Without emotional security it is difficult to let go of the self long enough to experience flow.  This doesn't mean no standards or no punishment for breaking the rules.  When there is no risk attached to transgressing rules, they become meaningless, and without meaningful rules an activity cannot be enjoyable.  Children must know parents expect certain things from them and that specific consequences will follow if they don't obey.  But they must also know that no matter what, the parents' concern for them is not in question.

 

Children raised in a stable environment are more apt to experience autotelic flow.  They know what their parents expect - goals and feedback are clear; they know their parents are interested in the here and now of their lives, not whether they will get into a good college/get a good job; they have freedom of choice including breaking the rules as long as they are ready to face the consequences; commitment/trust allows the child to set aside defenses and get totally involved; parents challenge the child through increasingly complex opportunities. 

When a family has a common purpose and open channels of communication, when it provides gradually expanding opportunities for action in a setting of trust, then life in it becomes an enjoyable flow activity. Its members will spontaneously focus attention on the group relationship and to a certain extent forget their individual selves and their divergent goals to experience the joy of belonging to a more complex system that joins separate consciousness in a unified goal. Unconditional acceptance, the complete trust family members ought to have for one another, is meaningful only when it is accompanied by an unstinting investment of attention. Otherwise it is just an empty gesture, a hypocritical pretence indistinguishable from disinterest.

 

In unstable families a lot of energy is used in constant negotiations and strife and in the children's attempts to protect their fragile selves from being overwhelmed by other people's goals.

 

When adversity threatens to paralyse us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction for psychic energy - a source outside the reach of external forces.  Narcissistic people, mainly concerned with self, fall apart when external forces turn threatening.  The panic prevents them from doing what they must do; attention turns inward to try to restore order to consciousness and not enough remains to negotiate outside reality and without interest in the world - a desire to be related to it - a person becomes isolated into himself.

 

Bertrand Russell said "Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly on external objects, the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection."  This is how to build an autotelic, self-actualized personality.

 

Unless a person knows how to give order to his/her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment; it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations.  Entropy (chaos) is the normal state of consciousness - a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

 

Those who try to make life better for everyone without having learned to control their own lives first usually end up making things worse all around.

 

Why are some weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it?  The ones who grow have learned to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled, enjoy themselves and emerge stronger.

 

Three Steps in the Transformation:

1.    Unselfconscious self-assurance - evidenced in severe physical ordeals.  Arctic explorers wandering alone believe their destiny is in their hands    but the ego is absent. They do not see themselves in opposition to the    environment but realize they have to sublimate or adapt their goals to the system in which they must operate at the time (e.g. car won't start when in a hurry to get somewhere so it is necessary to adapt - call a cab, cancel appointment, etc. instead of getting more and more frustrated by turning the ignition key.)

 

2.    Focus attention on the world - by paying attention to what is occurring around oneself, looking outward, the effects are lessened.  One becomes part of the environment, participating in it, helping one find a better way to adapt to a problematic situation.  New possibilities are likely to emerge which may suggest new responses and one is less likely to be entirely cut off from the stream of life.

 

3.    Discovery of new solutions - one can focus on the obstacles to one's goals and move them out of the way or focus on the entire situation to discover if alternative goals wouldn't be better - thus different solutions would be possible.

 

The Making of Meaning

As long as enjoyment follows piecemeal from activities not linked to one another in a meaningful way, one is still subject to the vagaries of chaos. The ultimate goal - no matter what it is - must be compelling enough to order a lifetime's worth of psychic energy and give significance to one's life.  This is achieving purpose.

 

The purpose must result in strivings, intent has to be translated into action which is resolution in the pursuit of one's goals.  "He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence." - William Blake

 

Someone who knows his desires and works with purpose to achieve them is a person whose thoughts, feelings and actions are congruent and has therefore achieved inner harmony.

 

Four Stages to Cultivate Purpose 

[Note the In/Out 'tide flow' of the 4 steps - A is 'in', B is 'out', C is 'in', D is 'out'.[

 

A.          Everyone begins with a need to preserve self, to keep the body and its basic goals from disintegrating (survival, comfort, pleasure).

 

B.          When bodily safety is no longer in doubt, one may expand one’s horizons to include family, neighbourhood, religious or ethnic groups leading to more complexity even though it usually implies conformity to conventional norms and standards.  Many get 'stuck' in this mode, not desiring to go beyond.

 

C.          The next step is reflective individualism, turning inward to find new grounds for authority and value.  One no longer blindly conforms but develops an autonomous conscience.  The main goal becomes the desire for growth, improvement and actualization of potential.  Fewer still reach this level.

 

D.         The fourth step, building on all the others, is a final turning away from the self, back toward an integration with others and with universal values.  This extremely individualized person willingly merges his interests with those of a larger whole - a cause, an idea, a transcendental entity.

 

Forging Resolve

Purpose gives direction but doesn't necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead to all sorts of trouble and one is tempted to give them up and find some less demanding script to order one's actions. However, the price paid for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while life may become more pleasant and comfortable, it is likely to end up empty and void of meaning. Because there is such a wide variety of choices, increasing as humans and life in general become more complex, it is imperative that one knows oneself.  A review of one's actions one or more times a day to see if what one has been doing is consistent with long term goals is one route to self-knowledge (the Jesuits' meditation).  Action by itself is blind, reflection by itself impotent.  It pays one to raise the fundamental questions: is it something I want to do; - do I enjoy it; - will I enjoy it in the foreseeable future; - is the price I (and others) will have to pay worth it?  If one doesn't know oneself, these seemingly simple questions are difficult or impossible to answer.

 

Unification of Meaning in Life Themes

Goal-directed actions provide shape and meaning to one's life, giving it a 'life-theme' and consciousness achieves harmony.

 

However, not all life themes are equally productive.  Authentic projects tend to be intrinsically motivated, chosen for what they are worth in themselves; inauthentic ones are motivated by external focus.  A similar distinction is that which is between discovered life themes, when a person writes the script for her actions out of personal experiences and awareness of choices; and accepted life themes, when a person simply takes on a predetermined role from a script written long ago by others.

 

Discovered life themes can seem crazy or destructive to others because they come from personal struggles to define the purpose of life and they may have less social legitimacy, being outside the norm, yet be absolutely essential for one to find, via the trial/error process, what has true value for the self.

 

Accepted life themes make one vulnerable to the intentions and agendas of others and can trap the person into perverted goals. 

 

To find purpose in suffering, one must interpret it as a possible challenge.  What transforms the consequences of a traumatic event into a challenge that gives meaning to life is one's development of a "dissipative structure", i.e. the ability to break down an unusable whole into useable parts, to draw order from disorder.  If one assumes that external events must determine psychic outcomes, then it makes sense to see the neurotic response to suffering as normal; and the constructive response as 'defence' or 'sublimation'.  But if one assumes that people have a choice in how they respond to external events, in what meaning they attribute to suffering, then one can interpret the constructive response as normal and the neurotic one as a failure to rise to the challenge, as a breakdown in the ability to flow.

 

According to Dante in "The Inferno", in Hell one can witness the sufferings of those who had never chosen a goal, and the even worse fate of those whose purpose in life had been to increase entropy - the so-called sinners.

 

To extract meaning from a system of beliefs, one must first compare the information contained in it with one’s own concrete experience, retain what makes sense, and then reject the rest.

 

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