By Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi thinks that you're not reading enough—specifically, not reading enough poetry, which is like using a Nautilus for the mind. Neither are you memorizing enough things. Perhaps you should consider moving to a large city, since "the density of human contacts that great cities afford is like a soothing balm; people in such centers relish it even when the interactions it provides may be unpleasant or dangerous. ... Everyone feels more alive when surrounded by other people." That being said, perhaps you should be like Dorothy, who moved from the big city to an island in northern Minnesota and enjoys being alone for months on end.
In any case, you really should be playing sports instead of watching athletes in stadiums; making music rather than listening to "platinum records cut by millionaire musicians," making art rather than buying it; and act on your beliefs rather than watching actors.
Certainly you should not spend your time in saloons after work, socializing with work friends. Rather, you should be at home building an intricate rock garden, like Joe. Joe is having fun the right way.
Perhaps I come across too harshly here, but I've pulled out actual examples from this perplexing book to make a point.
In this popularization of his research, Csikszentmihalyi attempts to define what leads to lasting happiness in people's lives. He argues that people are happy when they achieve flow. "The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one's powers," he argues, learning to "enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself." That is, we should become autotelic, i.e., internally rather than externally motivated. That involves focus. Most of us, Csikszentmihalyi says, tend to diffuse our attention in "desultory, random movements."
To achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, we must look for experiences in which the challenges are at or slightly beyond our skills. If that balance isn't achieved, we become bored (if skills exceed challenges) or anxious (if challenges exceed skills). We can achieve flow through seeking the right challenges and jobs, or even simply by gamifying routine tasks.
Csikszentmihalyi goes further, arguing that flow is the solution to the problems of cultural relativism. Is one culture better than another? Certainly: "If we assume, however, that the desire to achieve optimal experience [i.e., flow] is the foremost goal of every human being, the difficulties of interpretation raised by cultural relativism become less severe. Each social system can then be evaluated in terms of how much psychic entropy it causes, measuring that disorder not with reference to the ideal order of one or another belief system, but with reference to the goals of the members of that society." The more a society promotes flow, the better it is—according to Csikszentmihalyi.
As the alert reader has intuited, this move pushes the question back rather than answering it. Is the city more conducive to flow than the remote island in Minnesota? Is the POW camp more conducive than the factory? Should we pity Joe's coworkers, who think they are having fun socializing, when they really should be toiling on their own plots after work assembling rock gardens? And given that Csikszentmihalyi's interviewees found flow experiences in even the harshest conditions, how much guidance can we take from Csikszentmihalyi's many bromides, seemingly ripped from the pages of Reader's Digest? Is the key to flow, as Csikszentmihalyi sometimes seems to say, really based on living in the city, memorizing Homer, learning a musical instrument, reading poetry, and watching less TV? Is the notion of flow really reducible to this stream of moralistic finger-wagging? If so, aren't there more comprehensive books out there?