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Recently read: Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on August 6, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

“Flow” is Csikszentmihalyi’s term for the mental state accompanying sustained, concentrated, pleasant activity. Think of some activity you enjoy very much, which requires the sort of involvement that lets the time slip by unnoticed. Some people find this in games or hobbies; some in exercise; some in work. “Flow” a useful term, since it helps to identify a mental state that is, all things being equal, highly desirable. All other things are not always equal, since as Csikszentmihalyi notices, experiencing flow is not a sufficient condition for an objectively worthwhile activity. A Nazi might experience flow carrying out his duties, but the activities are no better for all that. Still, flow seems to be the subjective side of objectively valuable activities, and, as such, an extremely important part of a good human life.

Csikszentmihalyi surveys a number of activities, and finds common features of flow activities. His description of the conditions for flow during physical exercise, for example, is easy to generalize to many other activities:
The essential steps in the process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making diner and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Csikszentmihalyi is apparently responsible for introducing the notion of flow into modern psychology. And more power to him for that. Unfortunately, he’s a crappy writer, prone to limp epigrams, irrelevant digressions, and he has an annoying habit of sprinkling his favourite little quotations through his prose. His historical and philosophical digressions seem to me pretty thin, as well as unhelpful. More actual advice about achieving flow, and much less about everything else, would have been very welcome to this weary reader. While I’m sympathetic to the author’s claim that the subject is a difficult one to generalize about, and that each reader needs to discover things for herself, I have recently come to believe that there is much more in the way of useful concrete advice to be given in this area. But more on that some other time.

Verdict: Not recommended. Better to just read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.


Author: ben wolfson
Date: 2008-08-06

Not recommended. Better to just read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics[.]

High standard you set there.

Author: Chris
Date: 2008-08-06

Well, I don’t mean that anything less good than the NE isn’t worth reading. But this was a really tedious book, and the best part of it overlaps with the NE. Having said that, I should admit that the NE can be pretty annoying sometimes too.