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by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Mike Smith) delivers the not so surprising idea that happiness is a side effect of attitudes and efforts rather than a good acquired through passive pleasures.


Featuring an engaging style, Flow argues that taking charge must be done. We should not wait for others to change societal circumstances. While we wait for the world to change, those with power use trickery to take advantage of our habits and genetic predispositions.




Happy individuals, he writes, are active and connected, with a sense of control, able to find optimal levels of challenge. They interpret everyday experiences in enjoyable ways. They find ways to enjoy activities others consider tedious. (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelts’ enjoyment of conflicts, for example.)


The discontented, by contrast, fixate only on ends, especially the ends of sex, money and status, seeing the universe as cold, chaotic and purposeless. They have the “Is that all there is?” attitude.


Goop point, er, good point.


Csikszentmihalyi argues that disorder is the ordinary state of the mind rather than an exception that invades. The autotelic master-of-flow consistently creates order.


Autotelic individuals: (1) Focus attention; (2) have detailed standards; (3) feel in control and act in control; (4) have long-term goals that provide purposefulness; (5) connect flow activities to beliefs and other flow activities; (6) choose few conflicting goals; (7) interpret experiences in helpful ways--seeing diseases as enemies to fight rather than as opportunities for despair; (8) avoid fatalistic and deterministic beliefs, believing that the ideologies of yesterday will not get us to where we should go tomorrow; (9) respond to a self-created system of rewards; (10) are resilient and flexible, especially in new situations and when the unexpected occurs; (11) are not paralyzed by threats and stress; (12) become immersed and are not easily distracted; (13) redouble efforts when necessary; (14) choose goals neither too easy nor too difficult; (15) put a high priority on developing skills; (16) create more complex selves; (17) learn from failures and successes; (18) get immediate feedback from activities; (19) do not emphasize victory over others; (20) find work at least as enjoyable as leisure.


Work and personal relationships matter for happiness. Thinking that once we reach a certain age or accomplish a goal, that the remainder of life can be spent coasting because we have arrived or the universe allegedly owes us, is a big mistake.


Coasting does not maintain beneficial states. It causes decay.


Research suggests many individuals wish for more leisure, though their moods during work are better. Flow claims this happens because of mistaken popular beliefs such as the belief we need to recharge ourselves with passive leisure. In many cultures, individuals engage in hard play after finishing hard work.


Like sports, sex can become a flow activity, but like spectator sports, voyeuristic sex becomes awful habit. We must learn to make use of solitude. Otherwise unwanted moods and thoughts turn solitude into hell.


Schizophrenics and the overly self-conscious have great difficulty controlling consciousness, easily attracted to worthless stimuli and crushed by minor blows. Sadism and masochism attract because they make individuals feel alive and are powerful distracters from anxieties.


Flow makes a tentative move toward ethics but pulls back.


It overemphasizes the interpretation of everyday experiences at the expense of overall consequences, often venturing into subjectivism. Plain flow is better than dabbling and passivity, but moral flow would have been much better.


Csikszentmihalyi does not put enough emphasis on changing environments. We should both change our circumstances and take charge despite circumstances. Errors on non-flow subjects abound: Flow opines that the exception proves the rule. (Exceptions are almost always small sample fallacies.) “At least as far as the allocation of resources is concerned,” he writes, referring to military versus education spending, “the rod is about sixteen times mightier than the pen.” He counts only federal spending, but most education spending is state, local and private. Overall education spending is larger than military spending. We also read about the “combustion” and nuclear “fission” of the sun.


Many of his borrowed buzzwords and catch phrases are clunkers (“entropy,” “disorder,” “psychic energy”).


Excellent examples of individuals who live in flow abound herein, but Flow lacks specifics on how to get from emptiness to flow. Another bad side of flow activities exists: We could wall ourselves off to important information. (It appears that every member member of Congress lives in a bubble to keep out unwanted evidence.) Flow says little about that problem, yet this work has plenty of splendid things to say, too. Worth reading.  


Book review articles by JT Fournier, last updated July 7, 2009.


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