One of my go-to books during times of difficulty is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I’m currently re-reading it. By no means a trite self-help book, it offers inspiring and challenging advice on using one’s life to the full.
The author is a world-renowned psychologist, and yet he seems almost unknown to lay audiences despite his having written several general-readership books, including the one mentioned above. His work has involved collaborations across the globe, into the nature of the most fulfilling experiences that people can experience. I suspect there are many millions more who could benefit from his insight.
The important message – and my reason for mentioning it here – might be summed up as, “it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it” that makes all the difference to a fulfilled life; something that I think is also encapsulated in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It also seems to come as close as it is possible to, to justifying the claim that there are indeed ‘better’ and ‘worse’ ways of living life. The catch, of course, is that these are not necessarily to be found in the expected places. Above all, trying to conform to external criteria about what life ‘should’ be, is doomed to failure when it comes to personal satisfaction.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that the nature of profound human satisfaction does not differ very much across the world, even between extremely different cultures – though the ways in which it is achieved may do. The principal distinction is between things that are done for their intrinsic pleasure, and those that are done with an expectation of external pay-back. Flow and drudgery can be found in the same activity; the distinction comes from the motivation and mindset involved. The book is not excessively judgemental of modern society, but it does lament the extent to which modern life, attitudes and behaviours have been increasingly driven by precisely such external interests – and correlates it with human beings’ failure to grow life-satisfaction by anything like as much as they have their material wealth.
Flow arises when having an ‘optimal experience’, to which Csikszentmihalyi gives the name “autotelic” – in other words, an activity which is its own goal or purpose; a matter, perhaps, of the journey being the destination. In the state of flow, a number of things happen, including total absorption to the extent of losing one’s conscious sense of self, and the loss of a sense of time. Also unimportant is any defined ‘reason’ for doing the activity: it is its own reason.
This is how, over time, people come to have complex experiences – in other words ones where the task is closely-matched to their competence, such that they experience neither the anxiety of inadequacy nor the boredom of under-challenge. Instead, they experience a rewarding sense of personal agency.
Another essential aspect of Flow is that the actions that create it have to be voluntary; if they are externally commanded, this puts us straight back in the realm of activities that are extrinsically defined. However, the strength of this concept is that almost no activity need be excluded; the secret is to define whatever one is doing on one’s own terms. Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of this comes from the way even people held in solitary confinement often redefine their situation in terms of tasks or challenges they set themselves to stop them losing hope or sanity. Even in the most extreme circumstances, the mind has the capacity to take control of its own actions and turn them to benefit.
The conundrum with Flow is that the more competent one becomes, the greater the demands need to be in order to maintain the required level of challenge. While this may seem unrewarding, it is actually the key benefit of the whole concept: in effect it defines the process of human growth. By accepting such challenges, we inevitably become better at things – and by doing so, we refine our understanding and appreciation in a way that moves us from ignoramus, through novice, to expert. But we still need to remember that the only way that works is to do this entirely for our own satisfaction, not for any kudos that it might bring.
And that brings us neatly back to the underpinning idea behind this blog: that almost everything in life is worth doing – but the greatest ‘worth’ comes not from just doing it any old how (as modern society often seems to suggest) but doing it well; from allowing our innate curiosity to guide us towards the niceties of life, where we increasingly refine both our competence and our appreciation of every aspect of life, simply for the self-satisfaction and personal affirmation that it brings. Thus, doing things well – that is with complexity, skill and deep appreciation – is nigh-on objectively better than doing them in a trivial, superficial and extrinsic way. Or than simply never engaging with them in the first place.
Sadly, modern attitudes to discrimination seem to have been misapplied here: those who become connoisseurs in their chosen fields often tend to be lambasted for their perceived elitism, rather than envied for the personal reward that deep appreciation and expertise can bring. Or maybe it is that they are seen and envied for somehow being superhuman, when all they have done is apply a mindset and technique that is actually available to everyone. The error is to judge them according to perceived societal (i.e. extrinsic) values, rather than appreciate that the whole point of deep appreciation and skill is not the acclaim it can bring, but the internal reward of just doing something well. The fact that Flow can be found in almost anything – even something as mundane as doing the housework – comes down to the way one approaches it, rather than the inherent nature of activity itself.
Those who look on, perhaps criticising the perceived, apparent ‘superiority’ of people who make this journey while never bothering to do so themselves, will never begin to understand by just how much they are missing the point. The point of Flow is definitively not to impress; just to lead a satisfying life. Modern life (even in lockdown) can be dull, trivial and pointless – but it doesn’t have to be; all the difference lies in our heads.