06 Jun 2015

I am usually not a fan of psychology books, especially not pop psychology, and even more typically not a fan of what could commonly be called new age. But, I decided to read Flow based on a recommendation, and while it definitely fits all of the aforementioned categories that I usually dislike, I found this to be an enjoyable and enlightening read.

Flow is really just an all-encompassing term that means a lot more than the colloquial meaning that you might be familiar with. Flow is essentially the optimal mental state of being wherein you experience a sense of higher order happiness that occurs when you are in the delicate middle ground between anxiety with being in over your head and boredom with being under utilized. Sports are prototypical examples of where flow experiences are common. Rowing is one place where I have clearly felt this. When you first start rowing in eights, there is a choice between rowing all 8, or having 2, 4, or even 6 people sit out to steady the boat. When you haven't learned how to set the boat, rowing all 8 puts you on the side of anxiety where you are doing something that is beyond your skill level. When you only have one pair rowing, you can quickly get in the state of boredom. In fact with rowing you can easily get bored rowing sixes because having the training wheels of one pair setting the boat is about all you really need. The state of flow is occurs as you get better moving along the axis of boredom and then taking a leap upwards in difficulty along the axis of anxiety. Somewhere as you vacillate between these two states you get into a state of flow. As you get better at what you are doing, being in flow requires increasing levels of difficulty to stave of boredom but just the right amount to avoid being in a problematic state.

The book goes into a lot of examples of flow situations, discussions of happiness and how control over consciousness is the key to achieving it. I got the impression that the main point was that being "autotelic" is the way to achieve flow and a happy life. An autotelic experience is "a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward." There is also the notion of an autotelic personality which is related to how self-conscious someone is and in particular the ability of an individual to control their attention.

I find that I have more or less lived my life in search of flow experiences, but I have not really isolated before that this was going on. The main issue is that I quickly come to a point where I get into a state of boredom with a situation and it is hard to internally make another jump in the difficulty level. Usually this makes me want to find a new thing to re-experience the transition from what this book calls anxiety to boredom.

Overall the book was pretty good at illuminating the particular state of mind that I have found to be most enjoyable in my past experience. When I learned most was that there are quite a few strategies for achieving flow, as well as natural situations where flow is more or less likely to occur.

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