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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

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Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The central question of Flow is that of how to experience life well. It’s not about the conditions of living well, because Csikszentmihalyi makes the case that the conditions of living (past a baseline of survivability) have little to do with the experience of living well. That experience, he argues, is a psychological state induced by a particular structuring of consciousness, and that structuring of consciousness is one over which we can (and should) exert control. His shorthand for this ‘optimal experience’ is ‘flow’, and the state of flow has a few specific conditions:

  1. To experience flow, one must be engaged in a purposeful activity. The purpose need not necessarily be a ‘higher’ purpose with moral weight, but simply a purpose: jumping higher, producing a garden, or learning to juggle will do.
  2. The purposeful activity must be one that challenges us. If it’s too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, we get frustrated. We need goals that are achievable, but only with some effort.
  3. We need feedback. We need to have some means of knowing whether or not we’re making progress toward the chosen purpose.

When these conditions are satisfied, Csikszentmihalyi argues that we find ourselves in a state of ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’, and that flow is the basis for what we experience as having a good life. Without those conditions, what we experience is boredom, lack of purpose, low self-esteem, anxiety, or any of a number of other non-optimal experiences.

I find myself in agreement with Csikszentmihalyi‘s basic premise, and I find the argument persuasive based on my own experiences. That said, I don’t think Flow is a very good book. There wasn’t quite enough material in it. The substantive parts of the book were enough for a good solid article or essay, and the rest is just padded with endless listing of examples. Examples are useful in illustrating points, but they aren’t a substitute for arguments.

Nonetheless, the book succeeded in getting me to write about reading again – the point being to impose a structure on my reading, to once again read with purpose instead of merely to pass time. I try not to read books that don’t affect me, and this one did. Which, despite the sub-par writing, makes it not a waste of time to have read.

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