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Flow - The Psychology of optimal Experience   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    
Steps toward enhancing the quality of life.

Reviewed by Shaun Kerry, M.D.
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

For more than two decades, the author
has been studying states of "optimal experience" (happiness, in plain English) - those times when people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment.

These investigations have revealed that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow - a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.

   
Everyone experiences flow from time to time and will recognize
its characteristics: People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.  Both the sense of time and the emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence.

This feeling can be controlled, and not just left to chance, by setting ourselves challenges - tasks that are neither too difficult nor too simple for our abilities.  With such goals, we learn to order the information that enters consciousness and thereby improve the quality of our lives.

Flow is interrupted by internal conflict and a preoccupation with socially conditioned desires.  People in a state of flow are alert and attentive, constantly processing information from their surroundings.  The focus is still set by the person's goal, but is open enough to notice and adapt to external events.  The total involvement with the environment is described as "expanded consciousness" by people who practice meditation.

The rock climber Yvon Chouinard described one of his ascents on the fearsome El Capitan in Yosemite: "Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief.  The varied shapes of the clouds never ceased to attract our attention.  For the first time, we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny that they were barely noticeable.  I stared at one for fifteen minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color.  

"How could one ever be bored
with so many good things to see and feel!  This unity with our joyous surroundings, this ultra-penetrating perception, gave us a feeling that we had not had for years."

Children experience flow in the freedom of play.  Play has been called: "the work of childhood."  The importance of healthy social play in child development should not be underestimated.

Lifelong flow depends on self-knowledge, which is a process of continuous discovery.  Out of that self-knowledge can come a passion for a special interest that can develop into an important part of the advancement of civilization. 

At some point, for most people, our present educational system interrupts flow.  Internal gratification is replaced by external judgment and "hope," that fraudulent lie that if you suffer in the present, you will be happy in the future. 

There is absolutely no justification for an educational system interfering with flow.  Absolutely none.  To do that blocks real learning and real happiness. 

One of the reasons that home schooled children are more successful than institutionally schooled children is that the rigid structure that blocks the flow is absent.  It would be wonderful if society could appreciate this process and allow the two systems to merge.

Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial, 1991, ISBN 0-06-092043-2

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