FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Collins, 1991)

This is not a self-help book but readers should gain some modicum of enlightenment from a study of the psychology of optimal experience.

In layman’s terms the Hungarian psychologist (who works in California) sets out to discover what makes humans feel happy and fulfilled. A definite plus from his findings is that this a life skill that can be enjoyed by anyone since “money, power, status and possessions do not, by themselves, necessarily add one iota to the quality of life”.

Anecdotal evidence to substantiate this is provided by surgeons, musicians or chess players but the theory is deemed to be equally applicable to all walks of life including plumbers or mechanics. More than once I was reminded of Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which covers similar territory in more poetic terms.

Csikszentmihalyi asserts that since the normal state of the mind is chaos, the goal is to achieve an inner harmony through control over consciousness: “We must become independent from the dictates of the body and learn to take control of what happens in the mind”.

When we are engaged in activities that are inherently fun or exciting this should be less difficult; the challenge comes in finding purpose and meaning in even the most boring tasks. Easier said than done of course but the benefits for work, sex, creativity and mental health are so numerous that it’s worth making the effort.

From “decades of research” the conclusion reached is that “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What it all boils down to is control and self-discipline with consciousness being defined as “mentally ordered information”.

Flow is that state of mind where full engagement in what you are doing means that you either lose sense of time or you feel you are in slow motion. Reaching this state of nirvana involves giving up the safety of protective routines and improving the quality of experience.

Having established the principle of the flow theory, the second part of the book becomes repetitive and largely redundant. Nevertheless it is an intelligent study and not just another pop psychology title making rash promises about changing your life. Books cannot give magic recipes on how to be happy but this one certainly will point you in the right direction.

You can find a brief summary of  the book in Psychology Today or watch Csikszentmihalyi’s entertaining Ted Talk on the subject.