Friday, June 03, 2022

Summer Reading Group 2022 (FLOW, post #2)


This is part 2 of my review of Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, covering chapters 4, 5, and 6. (post #1 covering chapters 1-3 is here).

Csikszentmihalyi begins chapter 4 with a brief review of the concept of “optimal experience”:  “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-oriented, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing” (71).  When in flow our attention is so intense we do not worry about anything irrelevant (e.g. the soccer player sprinting to take a shot on net is not asking themselves “is my hair messy?” or “will my teammate be mad at me if I don’t pass them the ball so they have a chance to score a goal as I already have a goal this game?”.  Self-consciousness disappears-  when in the flow of soccer a player is present to the game, transcending (at least temporarily) the temporal realities that the rent is due, or a stressful work assignment is due, the next day.  Such activities are so enjoyable we pursue them for their own sake.  We are not preoccupied with asking “what will I get out of this activity?” or stressing about how difficult or dangerous they might be.

How do such experiences happen?  Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow can sometimes happen by happenstance, when the fortuitous circumstances of external and internal conditions align.  His example is an engaging dinner conversation that arises between friends one night, that engrosses everyone so much that the evening flies by.  Such spontaneous events can occur.  But flow is much more likely to be realized from structured activity or an individual’s ability to make flow occur (or a combination of both).

Flow activities include things like making music, rock climbing, dancing, sailing, chess, play, rituals, art, sports, and so forth.  These activities make optimal experience more likely to occur.  Their rules require the learning skills, and they have goals and provide feedback, etc.  The primary function of such activities is the provision of enjoyable experiences.          

Roger Caillois classified games into the following 4 categories:

(1)   Agon:  games that have competition as their main feature (e.g. most sports).

(2)   Alea: games of chance (e.g. bingo, dice games, etc.)

(3)   ilinx: or vertigo, games which alter our ordinary perception, such as rollercoasters, skydiving, etc.

(4)   mimicry:  alternative realities are created, such as in theatre, dance, and the arts in general.

            As a teen (and then as a father with my youngest son) one of my favourite games to play was Dungeons and Dragons.  It combined both alea (rolling the dice to see if you could inflict damage with your sword on the enemy Orcs) and mimicry as the adventure takes place in a mythical scenario (e.g. try to steal the dragon’s treasure) with fictional characters (e.g. the team is typically made up of fighters, thieves, dwarfs, magicians, etc. each with their own unique strengths and limitations, etc.).  And there are clear goals- vanquish one’s enemies, find treasure, embrace adventure, take risks!, etc.  Of the 4 types of play listed the only one I have an aversion to is Ilinx, I don’t like roller coaster rides etc., things that spin me around etc.  The only kind of amusement park rides I do like are those that involve water- waterslide rides I do enjoy!    

            All flow activity, argues Csikszentmihalyi, has the following in common:  “It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality.  It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and lead to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness” (74).  Self-growth is thus the key aspect of flow activities. 

The central focus of this chapter is the determinates of optimal experience, and Csikszentmihalyi  identifies both internal and external factors. 

With respect to the former, Csikszentmihalyi speculates (p. 84) that genetic inheritance probably has an influence on our realization of optimal experience (but no studies or particular genetic mutations are mentioned).  But genes obviously do not completely determine our experience of flow. 

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that schizophrenics who suffer from anhedonia (lack of pleasure), may lack the ability to concentrate needed to experience flow.  Some learning disorders among children may also impede flow because a child cannot control psychic energy.  Excessive self-consciousness (e.g. constant worry about how others perceive you) and excessive self-centeredness “both lack the intentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake; too much psychic energy is wrapped up in the self, and free attention is rigidly guided by its needs” (85).  Such mindsets are ill-equipped for being motivated to undertake intrinsic goals, goals that require one to lose oneself.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests (p. 86) that, just as some people are born with innate genetic advantages for muscular coordination, some people may have a genetic advantage with controlling their consciousness.  Later (p. 88) he contends that, while the association between the ability to concentrate and flow is clear, more research is needed to determine if it is learning vs genetic inheritance that is the cause of more optimal experience.   

In addition to these internal obstacles to /facilitators of optimal experience, Csikszentmihalyi notes that a number of environmental obstacles/facilitators also exist.  Extreme social conditions like slavery, exploitation and oppression can eliminate enjoyment in life.  Family life is also another important factor.  Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow activity parallels the following five characteristics of “autotelic family context”: 

1.     Clarity:  teenagers feel that they know what is expected from their parents, goals and feedback are not ambiguous.

2.     Centering:  child feels that the parent is interested in what they are doing in the present (not just with them getting into college or getting a well paid job). 

3.     Choice:  children feel they have a menu of options to choose from, including breaking the expectations of parents (but then being subjected to the consequences of doing that action).

4.     Commitment:  the trust a child feels that permits them to set aside the shield of defense, so they can become unselfconsciously involved in what they are interested in.

5.     Challenge:  parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.  (88-89)      

     Csikszentmihalyi notes that the traits of the autotelic personality is most evident in the people who enjoy situations most people find intolerable. For example, in prison.  Examples of this are prisoners in solitary confinement that find opportunities for mental action and setting goals.  When such persons are faced with adversity, which frustrates the realization of their goals, they are able to “pivot” and find meaningful goals within the challenging circumstances. 

The chapter concludes with an insightful quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell:  “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies, I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects:  the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection”.  Some persons are born with the gifts of genetic inheritance and an early upbringing that confer advantages on their ability to enjoy optimal experience.  In the next chapter Csikszentmihalyi turns his attention to the issue of being open to cultivate, through training and discipline, the autotelic personality.   

Chapter 5 titled “The Body in Flow” addresses a number of interesting topics, like sports, sex and the senses (e.g. seeing, hearing and tasting).  In the physical activity of sport we can enter “flow”, but it requires both body and mind.  Simply running doesn’t mean we will experience flow.  The mind has to be involved as well.  Physical acts are transformed into flow, argues Csikszentmihalyi, when the following 5 essential steps are involved:  (a) there is a set overall goal, and subgoals, that are realistically feasible; (b) we find ways to measure our progress towards those goals; (c) we concentrate on what we are doing, and find ways to make finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) we develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; (e) raise the stakes if activity becomes boring (97).

I can think of many examples of how these points have factored into my own enjoyment of working out, running and playing sports.  With weight training you can set goals to increase strength/weights, and measure progress in terms of muscle development.  With sports you can set goals to improve- with ball handling, passing accuracy and shooting (e.g. soccer).  Over the past few years I have increased my running distance and speed.  I monitor my pace per mile and heart rate on an app and see if I can improve both my average and fastest times each summer season.  Each time I set a personal best, or get among a “top time” pace record, it makes the new target even harder to accomplish.  But this provides an immense source of motivation for getting me out to run regularly all year, to try to keep some endurance over the winter months so I do not fall back too much before the start of the next spring/summer run season.  The one hard lesson I have had to learn over the past decade is to modify expectations, goals, etc. in light of injuries and the wear and tear of getting older.  But even within these modified goals I try to find a positive mindset that provides me realistic goals I can work towards.  And I find this keeps me highly motivated.

Sex is another activity that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as a potential optimal experience activity.  However as he notes (p. 101), sexual activity is not inherently enjoyable.  It really depends on how it is related to one’s goals.  Sexual activity that is contrary to one’s goals (e.g. when involuntary) is painful and revolting.  But when experienced with an intimate partner who one has a strong emotional bond with and the sex is an expression of the sanctity of that bond then it can be a blissful experience.

But Csikszentmihalyi does claim that sex can, with time, easily get boring.  In such cases  it is an activity done either as a meaningless ritual or an addictive dependance.  So he emphasizes a number of different ways that can keep sex enjoyable.  Eroticism, for example, “is one form of cultivating sexuality that focuses on the development of physical skills (p. 101).  He notes that the Karma Sutra is a manual that can help make sexual activity more varied and challenging.   But more important that cultivating the physical is the psychological dimensions of sexuality.  Wooing, romance and sharing of feelings between intimates can keep their bond vigorous. 


To sustain romantic relationships over time, argues Csikszentmihalyi, partnerships must become more complex.  “To become more complex, the partners must discover new potentialities in themselves and their partner” (103).  And this requires investing attention in each other- into their goals and dreams, etc. 

Yoga and the martial arts are also emphasized as ways to cultivate optimal experience.  The visual arts also permit us to develop an appreciation for the enjoyment of seeing.  “Listening to music can ward off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences” (109).

One of my favorite activities is addressed in the final pages of this chapter- cooking (and eating).  I love cooking, especially more complex meals that take time to cook, require some extensive preparation and will be shared with loved ones and friends.  I can become engrossed in a 3 hour dinner preparation, the time flies by, and I engage in the rituals of lighting the fire of my Green Egg smoker, searing a meat, and then slowing cooking it while preparing an assortment of side dishes.  To have everything ready at a pre-set time when guests arrive for dinner elicits a deep sense of satisfaction (cleaning up afterwards, not so much!).  By contrast, cooking something mundane, such as frozen chicken nuggets (which my kids enjoyed when younger) is boring and a chore. Just turn on the oven, stick the tray in, and set the timer.  There was no real risk (overcooking or undercooking a fillet mignon), no complexity (different spices of rub to use), no concentration was required (in contrast to the BBQ, when you need to attend to the initial sear of the meat, and then close the vents to lower the temperature or add wood chips to for smoking the meat, etc.). 

I also get great enjoyment out of eating, especially trying new food or food I do not have the opportunity to eat very regularly.

Csikszentmihalyi concludes this chapter with the following statement:

To realize the body’s potential for flow is relatively easy.  It does not require special talents or great expenditures of money.  Everyone can improve their quality of life by exploring one or more previously underexplored dimension of physical abilities (116). 

Chapter 7 is titled “The Flow of Thought”, and this addresses what, for me personally, has been the most significant source of optimal experience- the enjoyment that can come from exercising and developing our mental capacities.  My own personal philosophy is one of striving to be a life-long learner, to engage with life from a perspective of curiosity, flexibility and growth.  I believe the opposite of these three intellectual virtues- the vices of indifference, rigidity and stagnation- imprison our minds to intellectual apathy and entropy. 

Csikszentmihalyi argues that “the mind offers at least as many and as intense opportunities for action as does the body” (141).  I think this is a conservative statement of the potential for the mind to contribute to our enjoyment and wellbeing.  I really would have liked to see Csikszentmihalyi take this issue further, perhaps addressing empirical studies that examine how different physical disabilities impact flow, and compare that with the impact different types of intellectual impairment have on optimal experience.  A physical limitation might constrain our ability to dance, or losing one’s sight could diminish the potential to enjoy the visual arts.  But if the mind possesses memory, and is flexible to re-focus energy and meaning, I would not be surprised if the mind has the ability to overcome many physical constraints, so that flow can still be enjoyed.  That may be more challenging to do if intellectual impairments limit or interfere with the cognitive processes involved with optimal experience, like setting realistic goals, being able to measure progress or concentrate, raising the stakes when the complexity of challenges dimmish, etc.

            Reading is the first intellectual pursuit he addresses in the chapter.  We find solving mental puzzles enjoyable, whether it be a detective’s murder mystery novel, the entangled love story of a Harlequin romance novel, a historical analysis of the causes of war or an autobiography about the early life and upbringing of a celebrity.  Csikszentmihalyi claims that the normal mental state of the being is chaos (119).  Bringing order to the representation of the world requires training.  Our minds gravitate towards activities which provide information which distracts us from the chaos of life.  This might mean watching lots of TV, or spending lots of time on social media or just day dreaming.   But these activities might reduce our enjoyment because they are a low investment of our physic energy.  So being conscious about the kinds of activities we commonly engage in to keep distracted (e.g. checking our phones) could be a first stop towards improving our wellbeing.

The remainder of the chapter focuses on history, science and philosophy.  Can we find more value in history?  Yes.  Csikszentmihalyi suggests we focus on an area of history we are interested in- like the civil war, baseball, etc- and strive to have a good grasp of the subject. Personal history, like remembering your own past events and experiences, is also something that can add enjoyment (and preserve your sense of personal identity). Keeping diaries, old photos, etc. are important for this.

The discussion of philosophy made me think of the Philosophy Meetup (Kingston) group itself.  The group has met an amazing 111 times over the past 3.5 years!  Lots of great discussions and debates about ethics, politics, art, science, religion, etc.  Each of these conversations has introduced new insights and perspectives into our minds.  And doing this is fun!  For me personally, intellectual conversations are a major source of optimal enjoyment.  I am very fortunate that my career permits me to indulge in these pursuits.

 Here are a few questions we might discuss from these chapters:

1.      What are your favorite forms of bodily flow?  How do you feel when you engage in these activities?  Or when you haven’t been able to do these activities for a while?

2.     Family life:  did you grow up an in an “autotelic family context”? Can you think of examples of (a) clarity (teenagers feel that they know what is expected from their parents, goals and feedback are not ambiguous), (b) centering (a parent was interested in what they are doing in the present),  (c) choice, (4) commitment and (5) challenge?

3.     Is there a particular subject in history, science or philosophy you aspire to learn more about?  What makes it interesting and fulfilling for you?

4.     Which types of games are you favourite to play?

Agon:  games that have competition as their main feature (e.g. most sports).

Alea: games of chance (e.g. bingo, dice games, etc.)

ilinx: or vertigo, games which alter our ordinary perception, such as rollercoasters, skydiving, etc.

mimicry:  alternative realities are created, such as in theatre, dance, and the arts in general.

5.     Exercise:  can you think of one neglected form of bodily flow that you could cultivate- perhaps it is appreciating music or the visual arts more, or achieving a new exercise target (e.g. longer or faster walks or a run), or trying to prepare or eat new foods, or yoga and meditation.  Try doing this consistently for a few weeks and see if it adds a qualitative aspect to your daily life.