This week, Life Training Online is reviewing Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the sixteenth of fifty-two books in the 52 Personal Development Books in 52 Weeks series.

The Conditions of Flow

We’ve seen, in the last post, how people describe the experience of “flow.” But how do these optimal experiences happen? In this chapter, Mihaly explores those activities that are likely to produce flow.

Certain activities are designed to make optimal experiences easier to achieve. If you remember from the last post, in order to produce flow, an activity must have rules that require you to learn skills. You also have to set up goals, be able to receive feedback, and make control possible. If these then are the parameters that make flow possible, certain activities are definitely more conducive to achieving it than others. Some examples that Mihaly offers are play, art, pageantry, ritual, sports and so on.

The author makes the point that any activity can provide flow, so long as it fits within these parameters and that you stay within what he calls the “flow channel” — the area where the activity is neither too difficult nor to simple for your abilities. It’s this ever-changing balance which explains why flow activities lead to personal growth and discovery. In other words, you cannot continue to do the same thing at the same level for long. You will grow either bored or frustrated which spurs you on to stretch your skills, or to discover new ways and opportunities for using them.

The Body in Flow

Too many of us fail to make use of the almost unlimited potential for enjoyment that our bodies offer. But perhaps the easiest way of improving the quality of life consists of simply learning to control the body and its senses.

If we ignore this capacity, the functions of the body will atrophy. For example, an untrained body moves in random and clumsy ways, an insensitive eye notices only ugly or uninteresting sights, the ear that’s out of tune hears only racket, and the rough palate recognizes only mediocre tastes. But if you can learn to take control of your body’s potential, directing it in a flow-enducing way, quality of life will be greatly improved.

The Flow of Thought

Optimal experiences do not come only through the senses. In the authors words:

Some of the most exhilaratring experiences we undergo are generated inside the mind, triggered by information that challenges our abilty to think, rather than from the use of sensory skills…Just as there are flow activities corresponding to every physical potential of the body, every mental operation is able to provide its own particular form of enjoyement.

Among the different intellectual undertakings available, reading is one of the most common that creates a feeling of flow. Mental puzzles, art appreciation, even mathamatics are ways to create optimal experience in mental pursuits.

I’d have to agree with the author in that contrary to what we might assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. For most of us, our thoughts tend to be all over the place and when we do focus them, the great majority of us are unable to maintain that focus for more than a few minutes at a time. But when you’re engaged in a flow activity, focus of thought comes readily and easily.

Whether it’s science, philosophy, creative writing, or sudoku, exercising one’s thoughts are a wonderful way of inducing the flow experience.

Flow is the sixteenth of fifty-two books in Life Training – Online’s series 52 Personal Development Books in 52 Weeks.

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