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EcoMole Blog
9 April 2015
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow
Miloslav NicView Miloslav Nic's profile on LinkedIn

Today I have spent a lot of time tweaking the EcoMole blog system, and as it was such a good fun, I had almost forgotten about lunch. The improved system is now working, and I have decided to write about a book, which describes such mental state - flow. You can hear about flow directly from the author in a TED lecture or read about it at and so I will concentrate on the part of the book which I found most interesting.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the book author, invented a method in which people were wearing an electronic paging device. Any time their pager sounded they immediately noted what they were doing and what was their mood like (experience sampling method). In this way he could capture feelings in real time and so bring some scientifically supported answers to a perennial question - what really makes people happy in our world - where in his words:

  • "the primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs."
  • " The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present."
  • "THERE ARE TWO MAIN STRATEGIES we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better."

The ability to record feelings the moment they are happening revealed an unexpected discovery:

  • "The first surprise we encountered in our study was how similarly very different activities were described when they were going especially well. Apparently the way a long-distance swimmer felt when crossing the English Channel was almost identical to the way a chess player felt during a tournament or a climber progressing up a difficult rock face. All these feelings were shared, in important respects, by subjects ranging from musicians composing a new quartet to teenagers from the ghetto involved in a championship basketball game."
  • "The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding."

But if the activity itself is the really important reward then a lot of ridiculed activities are actually very reasonable, including my passion for many sciences. If you have similar inclinations, you wil probably enjoy following quotations from the book:

  • "Not so long ago, it was acceptable to be an amateur poet or essayist. Nowadays if one does not make some money (however pitifully little) out of writing, it's considered to be a waste of time. It is taken as downright shameful for a man past twenty to indulge in versification unless he receives a check to show for it."
  • "There is no doubt that a layman cannot contribute, as a hobby, to the kind of research that depends on multibillion-dollar supercolliders, or on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. But then, such fields do not represent the only science there is. The mental framework that makes science enjoyable is accessible to everyone. It involves curiosity, careful observation, a disciplined way of recording events, and finding ways to tease out the underlying regularities in what one learns. It also requires the humility to be willing to learn from the results of past investigators, coupled with enough skepticism and openness of mind to reject beliefs that are not supported by facts."
  • "An amateur or a dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally, 'amateur',from the Latin verb amare, 'to love', referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a 'dilettante', from the Latin delectare, 'to find delight in', was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving."
  • "An amateur who pretends to know as much as a professional is probably wrong, and up to some mischief. The point of becoming an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals on their own turf, but to use a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills, and to create order in consciousness. On that level, amateur scholarship can hold its own, and can be even more effective than its professional counterpart. But the moment that amateurs lose sight of this goal, and use knowledge mainly to bolster their egos or to achieve a material advantage, then they become caricatures of the scholar. "

And there is a deep truth in his words:

  • "Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom."

If you were nodding while reading the last paragraph, than you will find Ken Robinson's TED lecture: How schools kill creativity very interesting (and amusing).

And the final surprise:

  • "What was unexpected, however, is how frequently people reported flow situations at work, and how rarely in leisure. ... But even workers on the assembly lines reported they were in flow more than twice as often at work as in leisure (47 percent versus 20 percent)."
  • "one conclusion seems inevitable: when it comes to work, people do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible."

So when he states:

  • "But an exclusively economic approach to life is profoundly irrational; the true bottom line consists in the quality and complexity of experience."

it is not a wishful thinking of a romantic dreamer but a scientific hypothesis corroborated by many experiments.

This is a great book to read as many others in EcoMole reader's corner. I have read its Kindle edition but you will find no problem to find it in physical form in many bookstores and libraries.