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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 5 August 2016

"Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This influential book analyses what makes people happy. To do this he first divides pleasure (by which Csikszentmihalyi means the satisfaction of biological urges such as hunger, lust, fatigue etc) from enjoyment. Pleasure restores one to equilibrium but enjoyment, for Csikszentmihalyi, develops one. And the 'optimal experience' which gives enjoyment is 'flow'. Flow gives:
  • " a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment" (p 3)
  • "the best moments in our lives ... when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." (p 3)

Most of us have solved "the basic problems of survival" and have moved up Maslow's hierarchy to try to make meaning of our lives and stifle our "ontological anxiety, or existential dread." (p 12) Flow gives us a purpose.

This is what flow is like:
  • "You are totally involved" (p 53)
  • "You aren't thinking of yourself as separate from the immediate activity." (p 53)
  • "I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world, I'm totally absorbed in what I'm doing." (p 53)
  • "one forgets oneself, one forgets everything" (p 63)
In flow "concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted." (p 71)

A flow activity needs to involve challenge and skill and these need to be matched. If we start off with low skills and a low challenge (in flow) and we work hard we soon arrive at a situation when we have higher skills. We will become bored unless we now raise the challenge. If we raise the challenge too much we will become anxious and will have to work hard to develop our skills to return ourselves to flow. So, by trying to maintain  the  flow state, we develop our skills and challenge ourselves more and more; in short we improve.

Csikszentmihalyi believes that we can all do this. He gives examples of workers in routine, boring jobs who, by turning what they have to do into a challenge and constantly seeking to improve, turn boredom into fun. He quotes paraplegics who see their accident as the thing that gave meaning to their lives ("accepting limitations is liberating" (p 179)) and helped them turn from bored ordinary people to become leaders. He examples blind people and vagrants. Some of these stories are inspirational.

But you have to be active. For example, "Everything the body can do is potentially enjoyable." (p 95) and this means sports and sex. "The body is like a probe full of sensitive devices that tries to obtain what information it can from the awesome reaches of space. It is through the body that we are related to one another and to the rest of the world. ... what we tend to forget is how enjoyable it can be." (pp 115 - 116) But "instead of doing it personally, most people are content to hear about it or watch a few experts perform it." [that seems to equate watching the Olympics on TV with watching porn!] (p 102) "Vicarious participation is able to mask ... the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But ... passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness." (pp 162 - 163)

You can also just look and listen but again you have to be active: "occasionally people stop to 'feast their eyes' ... but they do not cultivate systematically the potential of their vision." (p 107) "Like a photographer looks at a sky and says, 'This is a Kodachrome sky. Way to go, God. You're almost as good as Kodak.'" (p 108).

Some brilliant quotes:
  • "it is very difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities in the culture at large." (p 183)
  • "What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year-old do in your typical suburb?" (p 183)
  • "How can we expect people who are ill, impoverished, or stricken by adversity to control their consciousness?" (p 192)
  • "'When I became paraplegic, it was like being born again ... I had to become part of the environment, and use it without trying to control it.'" (p 194)
  • "'The lion, when he runs after a pack of gazelles, can only catch them one at a time." (p 197)
This is an easy to read and life-affirming book. 

August 2016; 240 pages

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