Reading Notes: Flow

March 9, 2017

My notes from reading Flow, a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that explores the nature of fufilling experiences and activities.

Happiness Revisited

Happiness is a byproduct, not something you seek. The best moments in life come from stretching your mind or body to create or do something worthwhile. This creates a sense that you are participating in life, not just experiencing it. The joy we get from living depends on how the mind filters experiences.

Cultures develop myths to shield their members from the cruel vastness and indifference of the universe. Not just religious myths - belief that you live in the best country on earth, in a time of unprecedented scientific advancement, etc. and that these things alone should guarantee you a rich and happy life. Buying into these myths is dangerous. Doing so not only sets you up for disillusionment, but also alleviates you from the responsibility of taking active control of your life.

Society programs us to desire certain kinds of things, usually with a focus on the future (work hard to get a promotion and more money) or empty hedonism, which play to our biological urges. Adopt a reward system that's under your own power instead of being controlled by society or your base urges.

Happiness, pain, desire, malaise all exist in the mind, so learning to control one's own consciousness is paramount. Any small gain in that direction will make life more rich and enjoyable.

The Anatomy of Consciousness

The ability to organize consciousness to be happy or optimistic despite external circumstances is one of the most important traits for succeeding at and enjoying life. We're limited by how much we can process and experience at once, and by how much time we have. The experiences we're conscious of add up to our "life", and there are innumerable ways to waste those limited cycles we have instead of adding something to the ledger.

The shape and content of life depend on how attention is used. Attention determines what will or will not enter consciousness. It is useful to think of attention as "psychic energy", and learning to cultivate and direct that energy is the most fundamental way to improve experience. New information entering the consciousness will either drain energy (by conflicting with our goals) or free up energy by reinforcing our goals.

Flow, or the state of "optimal experience", is when the information entering consciousness is congruent with goals and frees up psychic energy to continue pursuing that task, creating a feedback loop. Attention can be freely invested to achieve goals because there is no cognitive disorder to straighten out or threats to deal with.

After each session of flow, you become more unique, more confident, and the owner of rarer skills. Flow also helps with integration, because your thoughts and goals are unusually well-ordered. An enlightened individual is complex but also integrated - in how his goals relate to each other and in how he relates to other people. Neither self-centered nor conformist.

Enjoyment and the Quality of Life

To improve quality of life, we can change external circumstances to meet our goals, or change our perception of those circumstances to better align them (buying a gun for defense vs recognizing that some risk is part of life and no-one is ever 100% safe). Neither strategy on its own is enough.

Pleasure is a response to restoring consciousness to order by dealing with the intrusions of biological desires, but pleasure itself does not promote growth or complexity. "Enjoyment", which may be but is not always pleasurable at the time, is marked by forward progress and stretching your abilities to accomplish something. Pleasure happens without effort; enjoyment requires it.

Enjoyment occurs when the following are present:

  1. A task which is within our reach to accomplish.
  2. We have the ability to concentrate on the task.
  3. The task has clear goals.
  4. The task provides immediate feedback.
  5. One acts with a deep but relaxed involvement that focuses the mind from other worries.
  6. A sense of control over your actions is present.
  7. The activity causes the self to momentarily fade (ironically only to emerge stronger after the task is completed).
  8. Time dilation is experienced, making minutes feel like hours or vice-versa.

The exercise of control (using your knowledge and ability to affect the outcome of a situation) is what gives a feeling of flow, not actually being in control.

Autotelic experience: when the doing of a thing itself is its own reward, even if there are benefits that one enjoys later as a result. When a task is intrinsically rewarding, you are able to derive pleasure from the present moment rather than the expectation of a future reward.

The Conditions of Flow

As skill increases, so too must challenges in order to remain in a flow state. Challenges that too-far exceed skill create anxiety, skills that exceed the task at hand result in boredom. This explains why flow leads to growth: one cannot enjoy doing something at the same level for long.

The ability to focus energy is necessary for flow. This ability depends on your disposition as well as environmental factors.

The Body In Flow

Sports and exercise can be places to find flow, as long as you set goals, have a way to measure progress, and set an appropriate difficulty level. If you exercise just to stay healthy, though, you're not likely to find joy in it. How you do something, not what you do.

Leisure that uses expensive resources usually requires less attention, and leads to less memorable and more shallow rewards.

Sex and relationships are like anything else: to enjoy them fully, we must take control and cultivate them towards greater complexity. Listening to music (as well as making it, obviously) and tasting food can be sources of flow, but only when the experiences are focused; we eat and hear music every day, but rarely in flow experiences.

The key message is that opportunities for flow are everywhere. The path to happiness, then, is not stuffing your existence with experiences and things that are more and more extravagant, but in learning to consciously participate and find joy in the amazing things that already surround you.

The Flow of Thought

Entropy is the normal state of consciousness. A successful person must find ways to order his mind, and certain flow activities act as tools that help with this. It is tempting to submit to some entertainment that structures our attention with external stimuli - TV, video games, etc - but the activities which are best at giving real satisfaction are ones in which a person has control over his mental processes - chess, reading, practicing an instrument, etc.

Mastering poetry, math, chess, etc. gives you a portable system of rules and symbols that you can use to order and entertain your mind wherever you are. Writing gives the mind a disciplined form of expression, builds self-esteem, and diaries help you recall and relive events in the future.

Work as Flow

You can find flow even in "dull" jobs by finding methods to increase complexity, heighten focus, develop skills and to lose one's self in the activity. People who do this tend to have a particular kind of personality ("autotelic"), and tend to enjoy complex and flow-producing activities in their leisure time as well.

Seek to find enjoyment in the intrinsic aspects of the work, not the rewards it brings. Jobs that offer lots of feedback and clear goals are most enjoyable.

Turning into a couch potato for a few hours every day isn't necessary. The impulse to do so is a symptom of our culture's attitudes towards work and leisure, and can be overcome by cultivating flow and intrinsic satisfaction. Psychic energy isn't used when doing something challenging, it's used when doing something we don't want to do. Make, therefore, work and rewarding leisure activities things that you want to do.

Leisure time that is centered on skillful activities leads to growth - time centered on passive entertainment does not.

Enjoying Solitude and Other People

Solitude can be depressing because it is very difficult to order the mind from within, without any external stimuli or demands. TV, masturbation, alcohol, wasting time online, and playing video games are psychologically cheap ways to cope with this. What one fills their time with while alone, with no external demands to structure attention, is the ultimate test of being able to control experience and live a creative life. Learn to use time alone instead of escaping from it.

Being alone is a chance to achieve goals that cannot be met in the company of others.

Interactions with friends can either encourage growth or be as empty as collective TV watching. With friends we are often most comfortable and able to get in touch with our true selves. Friends should not just reaffirm your public persona, but question your dreams and ideals and force you to examine yourself and encourage you to try out new ways of being.

Cheating Chaos

Life is made up of subjective experiences. Material circumstances may improve or dismiss these, but ultimately if we control our mind we can control these experiences.

Strategies for developing an autotelic personality:

  1. Set goals.
  2. Become immersed in activities. This requires development of concentration and attention.
  3. Pay attention to what is happening.
  4. Enjoy immediate experiences.

The Making of Meaning

Living as optimally as possible requires turning all life into a unified flow experience. Set a difficult goal, from which other goals follow, and invest energy in developing the skills to achieve those goals. Feelings and actions in harmony.

"Meaning" is (1) identifying a purpose that unifies your goals and (2) successfully directing your energy toward achieving those goals, which leads to (3) a state of harmony where you know what your desires are and find your actions congruent with the achievement of those desires. Purpose, resolution and harmony.

Activity by itself is blind; reflection, impotent. The two should complement one another. Constantly examine your stated goals, and make sure your actions are working towards those goals.

The project: goal-directed actions that give shape and meaning to a man's life. A "life theme".