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.

Work as Flow

Unfortunately, calories don’t mysteriously appear on our dinner tables, and our houses, cars, and other wants and needs don’t spontaneously pop out of the abyss. Like most life forms on earth, we have to spend a great part of our living making a living. But does work have to be drudgery? No, not according to Mihaly. Work, like any other activity, can be a source of flow when it fits within the parameters that he speaks about throughout his book: built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges.

Because it tends to be structured and — for many jobs — the provided challenges require a high level of our skills, work is a perfect candidate for experiencing flow. So why do too few of us ever really have optimal experiences while working? Mihaly concludes that when it comes to work, people do not fully involve their senses. They “disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like.”

To create flow in the workplace, you must erase that stereotype from your mind and fully immerse yourself in the task at hand. By allowing the moment to become your focus, the flow state will be readily available to you — even while you’re working.

Enjoying Solitude and Other People

We are social animals. In many different societies throughout the world, from the modern to the aboriginal, the worst punishment you could give to someone is to shun them from the community. Social science surveys have shown that people tend to be most happy with friends and family, or just in the company of others.

On the other hand — quite paradoxically — the most painful events of our lives are also linked to relationships with others. How can it be possible that people are the cause of the best and worst of times? Mihaly states that because people are the most changeable part of our environment, they can one day be a living hell and on the next, heaven on earth. If you can approach the building of your relationships within the parameters of a flow activity, optimal experiences from those relationships will be a certainty.

On the flip side, since we are social animals, how does one deal with solitude? And can flow be achieved during these times? In the second half of this chapter, the author tries to answer this question.

Most people feel an intolerable sense of emptiness when they’re alone. Whether it’s working at an assembly line or watching television, people seem happier if surrounded by others. It’s not that watching TV alone, for example, is depressing in and of itself. It’s just that the loneliness bug comes when you’re alone and there’s nothing that needs to be done. So the answer that Mihaly gives on why solitude is such a negative experience has to do with the lack of order within your mind.

We seem to need external goals, feedback and stimulation — otherwise the mind begins to wander chaotically and we feel the impact of solitude. It’s the person who, of their own volition, is able to fill their free-time with activities that require concentration; who seeks to increase their skills; and generally works on personal development :) that experiences flow even when alone.

Cheating Chaos

Despite all the previous chapters on how you can achieve happiness in life, you may still be thinking that it’s easy to be happy if you were lucky enough to be rich, beautiful, healthy and so on. But what about when things don’t go your way? When fate deals you a bad hand? What then? Can you still be happy and achieve optimal experiences in life? Most definitely.

Mihaly quotes Dr. Franz Alexander who said: “The fact that the mind rules the body is, in spite of its neglect by biology and medicine, the most fundamental fact which we know about the process of life.” The important point made here is that a person who knows how to create flow in their life, will be able to even enjoy situations that seem to others, to allow only despair.

There are so many examples throughout history and our modern literature that show people who are able to overcome trials such as paraplegia, horrific abuse, major birth defects and incredible adversity, and turn them around to live extremely happy and purposeful lives. These people are able to find flow in the worst possible situations.

A major catastrophe that frustrates a central goal in life will cause a person to do one of two things: either shut down completely and give up trying to attain any other goals, or it will provide a new, clear, and more urgent goal of overcoming the challenges that came as a result of their defeat. When they are able to still set new goals, become immersed in their chosen activity and pay attention to feedback, they will still be able to create flow in their lives. This is cheating chaos.

The Making of Meaning

In this final chapter Mihaly discusses how to turn all of life into a flow experience by discovering an important, challenging life goal. It’s this goal that will bring meaning to life.

If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together – and each activity will “make sense” in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life.

It’s these types of goals, Mihaly says, that give men and women a purpose that extends beyond the grave.

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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