The Psychology of optimal Experience
enhancing the quality of life.
Reviewed by Shaun
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
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
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
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
"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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