Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading :: Flow

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?


Charles Nelson said...

You're finding fault with his examples, but can you find fault with his research? If the research is solid, then do the examples follow from its findings? If not, how not?

Charles Nelson said...

On a side note, Csikszentmihalyi's research on internal motivation is congruent with Deci & Ryan's self-determination theory, which encompasses intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. For intrinsic motivation, autonomy ("autotelic") is the primary factor, followed by competence (similar to "challenges are at or slightly beyond our skills") and to a lesser degree social relatedness.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Charles, the question is impossible to answer from this book. Although he tells us that this book is based on his research, literally all we get is wall to wall examples and the bromides he uses to interpret them - and the fairly thin discussion of boredom vs. anxiety to which I alluded in the review.

I understand that Csikszentmihalyi has conducted and published extensive research, and I assume that it's solid. But unfortunately this book itself does remarkably little to describe or illuminate it.

In other general-readership books, we tend to get a decent idea of what the research looked like, and we tend to come away with a fairly solid understanding of the principles that follow from it. What struck me in reading Flow was that Csikszentmihalyi was having a very hard time generalizing the core idea of flow (a balance between challenge and skill) in ways that could provide principles or guidance for living. Perhaps this is why the bromides tended to take over.

Ph.Daddy said...

I was interested at one point in creativity but was turned off of Csikszentmihalyi for the reasons you meantion, Clay. He is rather obsessed with a broad argument supported by this borderline snake oil "peak experience." This transcendental state everywhere, but its impact is elusive. Also questionable are quantitative social science attempts to measure "flow" through surveys and pseudo-experimental designs. As a communication guy, I find work on social creativity and cooperation to be much more compelling/observable/credible.