Thursday, May 17, 2018

Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

"Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience" is a highly recommended book. The book has another tag line - Steps toward enhancing the quality of life.

The process of total involvement with life is what MC calls flow.  As we know optimal states and total involvement states are not easy and happen rarely. But the author feels that flow can be achieved by attaining control over the contents of consciousness. However, flow does not happen in a passive time. It typically happens when a person is stretched to limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. So it is not an accidental state but one where one chooses to push beyond the normal voluntarily and is aware of the contents of consciousness.

Flow is to do with a sense of happiness - total involvement is close to that perhaps. Now the author says that if human endeavor is to be happy, then what would make people really happy is not getting rich but feeling good about themselves. It's a state of being rather than acquiring stuff. Interestingly MC says happiness does not happen by accident. It must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately. One must achieve control over the contents of our consciousness. Most importantly, feeling secure is an important component of happiness.

Optimal experience is when we feel in control of an action, when we feel as if we are masters of our own fate. It happens rarely and almost as if by accident. But when deconstructed one finds that these moments usually occur when a person's mind or body is stretched to its limits in voluntary effort to accomplish something different and worthwhile. Optimal Experience is something we make happen. It is what we do because in the end, it boils down to feeling good.

How Consciousness works
To achieve inner harmony MC feels that we must be able to make sense of the whole and join all experience into a meaningful experience. Our inner harmony is normally distorted because we all have a picture of what we want to accomplish before we die. And where there are expectations there is a gap.  The gap between what we want and what really happens creates a gap. This gap disturbs the inner harmony.

Among things that disturbs our inner harmony is fear. Men are not afraid of things, but of how we view them, says the author. Which probably means that men are worried about the illusory loss of control than of reality. It comes back to the gap - how do we reduce it or how do we gain control over it.

Anatomy of consciousness
The author defines consciousness as intentionally ordered information. Control in consciousness determines the quality of life. One who is in control of consciousness has the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a job. One could say he is a master of his fate already because he has a clear goal, a clear process and is on the job. All conrollables and no uncontrollables.

Clearly then, order in our consciousness (being in control of feelings and thoughts) happens when our psychic energy or attention is invested in realistic goals where skills match opportunities for action. Attention is the psychic energy we invest in the world or things. Attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.

To improve quality of life MC prescribes two ways - 1) to make external conditions match our goal 2) to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals. Or more simply, reduce the gap.

The author calls disorder in consciousness as Psychic entropy (disengagement). To get fully engaged mind and body, the author says we normally increase the level of complexity in our life (make life/work difficult with higher level challenges of time or effort). We use differentiation (separate ourselves from others to be unique) and integration (join ourselves with others) as tools to do this.

Certainly, competition is one way to develop complexity. It merges action and awareness.

The author deconstructs the process of being in flow
Flow must have
  • Clear goals and feedback
  • Concentration on the task at hand
  • The paradox of control
  • Loss of self-consciousness
  • Transformation of time
The author talks of autotelic personalities or people who have their own self (auto) owned (contained) goals. (People who own their space and lives by setting their own goals). These autotelic people  transform jobs into flow producing activities.

By now one would have understood that the most enjoyable goals are not material.

"If you are pained by external things, it is not that they disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now." - Marcus Aurelius

Enjoyment is characterized by forward movement, a sense of novelty and accomplishment.
The components of enjoyment are (similar to flow)

  • It occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing
  • We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing
  • There are clear goals
  • There is immediate feedback
  • We act with deep but effortless involvement that removes from our awareness worries and frustrations of everyday life
  • We feel a sense of control over our actions
  • Concern for self, disappears (self returns after the experience)
  • Sense of duration of time is altered
Conditions for flow
  • A challenging activity that requires skill
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Clear goals and feedback
  • Concentration on the task at hand
  • Paradox of control
  • Loss of self-consciousness
  • Transformation of time
Flow is enjoyable because you set the rules.

Flow in Survivors
Surprisingly flow was also noticed in survivors of holocausts, people who went through horrifying life experiences. What enabled them to survive seemed to be intense present moment mindedness which enabled close attention to minute details of their environment. While paying close attention they discovered hidden opportunities of action. This enabled them to turn bleak conditions into subjectively controllable experiences. From people who lived in concentration camps to paraplegics who lost their limbs in accidents, they all said that the experience was one thing that made them better people.

Some interesting examples. Christopher Burney, a prisoner of the Nazis, made his prison life a flow activity by committing to a minute examination of his cell, blanket, toilet etc. He drew a map of the world on the floor of the cell and travelled from Berlin to Jerusalem, in his mind,  few kilometers every day, visualising the entire experience in rich detail. Another prisoner Eva Zeisel, who was a ceramic designer, made a bra out of materials at hand, played chess against herself in her head, memorized poems, did gymnastics. Or the pilot who was captured and in prison for 9 years who kept his sanity by playing 18 holes of golf every single day, carefully choosing his clubs, varying the difficulty of courses - all in his head of course (and interestingly when he was released, played golf as if he had never missed a day of practice). MS feels that they all achieved a state of non-self-consciousness individualism - a strongly directed purpose that was not self-seeking.

Body in Flow
The challenge in physical activity is definitely what forces us to concentrate. So flow can be easily experienced in physical activities. Apart from athletes, flow in movement includes sex and yoga. The author discusses Hatha Yoga and its eight components - Yama - restraint, Niyama - routines, Asana - sitting, Pranayama - Breath control, Prathyahara - withdrawal, Dhyana - meditation, Samadhi - self collectedness. Flow in the body would also be found when all the senses are employed - and hence music, food, sight all lend to flow experiences.

Plato believed that children should be taught music before anything else. In his opinion, in learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonious themes, the whole consciousness would become ordered.

Flow of Thought
Entropy is our normal state of consciousness - neither useful nor enjoyable. Those people who seek challenges and complexity challenge their mind with riddles, crosswords etc. Here the author makes a fine point - that work and leisure are the two big parts of life - people find flow in leisure activities like adventure, writing, painting, gardening, cooking etc. However since the advent of TV people are less prone to engage in activities during leisure hours and more prone to watching others act or create. So people watch athletes play instead of playing, watch chefs cook instead of cooking, read books instead of writing etc. He points out that flow happens when you actually experience the act and not by watching someone else perform. He also mentions that our best work seems to happen in our hobbies.

As with Carol Dweck, the author also endorses a life that is keen on learning lifelong - an act that will surely put you in a state of wonder and flow.

Work as Flow
He quotes Freud's recipe for happiness - work and love. While speaking of work he cites three fine examples - Joe the mechanic, Ting the butcher and Serafina the farmer. Joe would involve himself for hours in work seeking out solutions to make work on the shop floor more efficient. When questioned about his total involvement with the job he said that he was always like that. When he was young and a toaster at home stopped working he asked himself - "If I were the toaster and did not work, what would be wrong with me?" With such empathy and mindfulness, he would find solutions to the problem at hand. Ting the butcher was legendary for the way he would slice through the meat. In his words 'perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.' He is talking about his knife and the meat - he has become one wih the knife and the meat! Serafina, an aged farmer, who does a tremendous amount of work every single day in her alpine village and seems to love it. In each act, invests a rare mindfulness and finds great peace and satisfaction.

To improve quality of life through work the author suggests that we must
1) redesign jobs so they resemble flow activities as closely as possible, and
2) help people develop autotelic personalities.
Once we are self-contained we are free.

Flow occurs when a person's marked level of challenge is above mean level.

Enjoying Solitude and Other People
The author explains that quality of life depends on
1) how we experience work and 2) our relationships with other people

There are those who enjoy solitude - and the same solitude seems to drive many others round the bend. An example is Dorothy, a nurse who retired and went off to live in Alaska in a cottage all by herself in extreme solitude with not a soul nearby. Another example of flow in solitude was discovered by a solo sailboat sailor who happened upon another solo sailor in the middle of the ocean. The other sailboat, however, had a yellow, stinky, sticky mess on the floor. When asked the sailor told him that his fridge had stopped working and the eggs had gone bad. Instead of throwing them away he decided to break them on the floor so he could clean them and thus engage himself in 'flow' activities. The only thing he did not bargain for was for them to smell so bad.

In many ways the author keeps coming back to themes of mindfulness, doing things for the sake of doing them without hankering after results etc.

Creating Chaos
The author describes how paraplegics said they were born again after the incident because they learned many new things and ways to live more intensely and purposefully. The example of Reyad, an Egyptian youngster who just took off and wandered homeless for years is one such. He feels he is on a wonderful journey, discovering life in its extreme every day. He is coping with life on a minute to minute basis.

The author feels that to improve quality of life "we should learn to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge".

Transformation occurs when
1) one is in an unselfconscious self-assured state (a feeling that their destiny is in their hands, ego is absent and they merge with the environment),
2) Focused attention (on minute details of the world) and
3) Discovery of new solutions. Mindfulness at its best.

To develop an autotelic (self-contained) self, he says.
- set goals
- become immersed in the activity
- pay attention to what is happening
-learn to enjoy immediate experience

The author concludes that we must make our own meaning of the world by cultivating purpose which gives us direction.

Flow examines in detail aspects we are fascinated with - of optimal experience. So many theories that made sense to me - growth mindset, mindfulness, working on the process without worrying about results, using feedback as a monitoring device to check effort, the importance of purpose, all merge seamlessly into the theory. If I have to pick one, it is that of mindfulness because it involves full attention on the job at hand and once we merge, all we find is compassion.

Thanks Vinod bhai!

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