Saturday, October 01, 2011

Csikszentmihalyi's Disappointing "Flow"

One of the most cited works in the positive psychology canon is Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I think the main idea is sound and helpful.  But the book itself is surprisingly and unnecessarily negative.

"Flow" is what we feel when we are having what he calls an optimal experience.  He describes these as “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” The flow channel is an optimal path between anxiety and boredom, where your skills and your challenges meet.  The result of experiencing flow is that your own consciousness becomes more complex.

Most of Csikszentmihalyi's examples come from avocations - music, art, athletics, crafts. He says that we can experience flow in our jobs as well, though most of his examples are drawn from the white collar professions.  It was surprising to me that he did not treat marriage or childrearing as common settings for flow - the social relationships at the core of positive psychology.  Instead, the social relationships chapter was mostly about friendship.

Most of positive psychology treats religion as the most reliable setting, outside of family life, for positive relations, for serving others and feeling that your life is a meaningful part of a larger whole. 

Csikszentmihalyi, on the other hand, pronounces religion false, and worse. He simply declares at the outset that the universe has no meaning, that there is no God or any other kind of creating or superintending power.  The meaning we find in our lives we put there ourselves.  And this polemic against religion and any form of meaningful universe is not confined to the opening ideological chapters, but is shot through the book.  Moreover, he takes it for granted that "people today" can't believe that old religion.  He cites Muslims from the Gulf States as the kind of people he has met who come from cultures where traditional faith still seems plausible.

I had the feeling at the World Congress of Positive Psychology, where Csikszentmihalyi was honored along with the other Founding Fathers of the movement, that his position was somewhat outside or askew the main stream of positivity.  I now have a better sense of why.

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