The Psychology of Optimal Experience- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I have heard multiple references to this concept of “Flow” in many self-help books and that drove me to read this book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as six cent mihali).

The words of wisdom from this book are:

  • One has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.
  • We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future.
  • What matters is the interpretation that one places on the suffering.
  • It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response built into our genes for the preservation of the species, not for the purpose of our own personal advantage.
  • If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders.
  • “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”

Freud pointed out, the two tyrants that fought for control over the mind were the id and the superego, the first a servant of the genes, the second a lackey of society—both representing the “Other.”

  • It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory. And this is never easy.
  • Attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.
  • THERE ARE TWO MAIN STRATEGIES we can adopt to improve the quality of life.
    • The first is to try making external conditions match our goals.
    • The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.
  • To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience.
    • First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
    • Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
    • Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
    • Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
    • Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
    • Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
    • Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
    • The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it. This is nothing but Flow.
  • Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.

As Democritus said so simply many centuries ago: “Water can be both good and bad, useful and dangerous.

To the danger, however, a remedy has been found: learning to swim.” To swim in this case involves learning to distinguish the useful and the harmful forms of flow, and then making the most of the former while placing limits on the latter. The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people’s chances to enjoy theirs.

One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness: “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.”

  • The easiest step toward improving the quality of life consists in simply learning to control the body and its senses. Whenever the outside world offers no mercy, an internal symbolic system can become a salvation.
  • Talking well enriches every interaction, and it is a skill that can be learned by everyone.
  • “Philosophy” used to mean “love of wisdom,” and people devoted their lives to it for that reason.
  • The quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.
  • The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.
  • Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience. Whoever achieves this flow state will never really lack anything else.

This book is a difficult read so read it only if you are interested in human psychology.