"Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life," Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Pros: Fascinating research; doesn’t promise easy answers; genuinely helpful
Cons: Hard to agree with everything
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 9/4/2002

Not long ago I read Susan K. Perry’s “Writing in Flow,” and I was intrigued. Nay, I was hooked. Getting into “flow” while you work can feel amazing. To quote Perry’s book:

You know you’ve been in flow when time seems to have disappeared. When you’re in flow, you become so deeply immersed in… whatever activity you’re doing, that you forget yourself and your surroundings… You feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Perry’s work was based on research by psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. After reading Perry’s book, I went on to find one of his: “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.” Where Perry interpreted flow with respect to writers, the professor relates it to the entirety of our lives.

Who is this book for?

Psychology book, or self-help book? It’s listed as both on the back cover, but there can be worlds of difference between academic psychological research and your average easy-to-read self-help book. “Finding Flow” is a little bit of both. The language is erudite and dense, and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who has trouble with large words or who is looking for a little light reading. On the other hand, it isn’t dry and obfuscated the way most academic papers seem to be. The book does seem to serve both purposes equally well. Parts of the book discuss Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s research and various related studies and theories. Much of it, however, discusses specific ways in which you can use his studies and research to improve your own life.

Happiness, Work, Motivation

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has conducted some very interesting studies on happiness, work, and flow. One of his favorite methods of studying people’s attitudes and feelings is the Experience Sampling Method, or ESM. The idea is that the people participating in the study wear pagers or programmable watches that signal them at random times. When the signal goes off, the person writes down various things like where she is, what she’s doing, and how she feels (rated on various scales). Some of the things that get rated are motivation, happiness, concentration, self-esteem, and so on.

Various charts and graphs appear throughout the book to illustrate the professor’s points, and he’s very good about saying when results can be interpreted in various ways (and when other people have interpreted them differently than he does).

There’s a great deal of material here on what makes people happy and why. Many things that impact on our feelings are discussed. Solitude, challenges, our skills, leisure time, relationships, family, religion, and so on are all addressed by the good professor. He approaches everything from the unique perspective of flow being the peak experience rather than a subjectively defined “happiness”. He brings up the idea that leisure time, when used for passive activity (such as TV watching), or as a time to do nothing at all, can actually be psychologically damaging when we engage in too much of it. Not because TV is somehow corrupting or mind-rotting, but simply because we tend to be psychologically healthier when we engage in active goals, with motivation and interest.

The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.

History, the Future, Families, Communities, and Religion

He delves not only into the present of issues, but also the past. He talks about the history of work and how it’s different in this century. He discusses past family models, and how they are and are not like the families of today. He discusses the “ideal family,” and whether it has ever existed, as well as the ideal community. You’ll find out why tribal societies often consider it dangerous for a person to be alone. Some of his theories are bound to make a few waves:

Ideal communities, like ideal families, may never have really existed… Nevertheless, this does not mean that trying to create wholesome communities is a bad idea. Rather, it suggests that instead of looking for models in the past, we should figure out what a safe yet stimulating social environment could be like in the future.

If the idea that the so-called ideal family has never existed bothers you, then you’ll probably find his material on religion – particularly our evolving religious needs – even stranger.

Is it worth reading?

I can’t agree with every theory he puts forward, but then when someone covers this much ground, you’ll probably never be able to agree with everything he says. However, his work is still very much worth reading. He makes logical arguments. He explains the grounds for his reasoning. He presents the statistics, charts, graphs, and studies on which he bases his ideas, so that you can make up your own mind.

And ultimately, many of the things that he suggests for improving one’s life make a whole lot of sense to me. Find hobbies and active interests that motivate and challenge you. Try to find work that is challenging, yet makes use of your skills. Pay attention to the people you care about – take an active interest in their goals and desires. Worry less about trying to somehow get away from it all and do nothing, and try instead to find projects and goals that pull you in and make you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. You’ll even find some suggestions for how you can make routine, boring tasks more interesting.

These, and many more gems of wisdom, make this book worth reading.

The small details

There’s a thorough index, a long list of references if you want to read further, and plenty of notes. One or two of the graphs suffer from colors that look too similar in black-and-white, but the rest are very clear. While the writing assumes a very literate audience, it is clear and straightforward with a friendly tone.

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