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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Twice as Many Morning People as Night Owls (so ha!)

Cornell sociologists Scott Golder and Michael Macy studied the moods that people express in their Twitter messages. They found a pattern through the day - happy in the morning, trough in the later afternoon, picking up again last thing. Likewise, happy tweets were more likely on the weekend than Monday (or the equivalent in other cultures).

One side finding that I, a morning person, found particularly interesting was this one:

The pair found that about 7 percent of the users qualified as “night owls,” showing peaks in upbeat-sounding messages around midnight and beyond, and about 16 percent were morning people, who showed such peaks very early in the day.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Gratitude vs. Social Closure

One of the best practical tools of positive psychology is the gratitude notebook.  In it you write, say, three things a day that you are grateful for.  This helps you feel grateful in general, as a daily attitude, and cuts down on complaining and self-pity.

Gretchen Rubin, in her Happiness Project, found that she was more grateful if she compared down than if she compared up.  That is, if she started thinking "I'm grateful I'm not ..." rather than "I wish I were ...," she ended up more grateful.

Social closure works like that, too, but in a negative way.  Social closure is an idea developed by Max Weber to explain how status differences get turned into hard divisions between groups.  The higher status group picks some small and mostly arbitrary difference between itself and the group immediately below, and tries to close ranks on the basis of that distinction. Educational credentials are the most important tools for status difference today, but practically any difference can be pressed into this service.  And the group below, facing exclusion, resists being excluded.  But they, in turn, tend to close against the group below them, engendering the same kind of resistance, and so on to the bottom of the social structure.

We can feel grateful that we do not have the problems of those worse off than us, without thereby wishing to exclude them from our society. 

The fruit of social closure is a status ladder.  The fruit of gratitude is compassion.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NSF Helps Science Moms Have Their Grants and Babies, Too

The National Science Foundation has announced new policies to accommodate women scientists get and keep big science grants while having and raising children.

These changes are in response to a sociological study by Elaine Eklund that women scientists are twice as likely as their male counterparts to regret not having more children. Moreover, the science policy makers are worried by evidence that young women are diverting themselves from science careers because of the difficulties they see in combining that work with a family.

This is excellent news. I have blogged before about how the family-unfriendliness of science was scaring women off. I see these new policies as evidence that the tide is turning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Do What You Really Find Fun, Not What You Wish You Found Fun

Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project revealed a truth to her that she found very helpful, but also sad: she often did things that she did not enjoy because she thought she should enjoy them. She concludes

Accepting my true likes and dislikes bring me a kind of sadness.  … First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much! – so much beauty, so much fun, and I am unable to appreciate most of it. But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. 
I think Gretchen Rubin is a more adventuresome person than I am.  She is sad that she doesn't enjoy many things that other people do. Rubin's list of what she wishes she enjoyed seems to be higher status culture items - classical music, vs. pop - rather than higher cost items.  I think her desire to appreciate beauty is honorable.  And realizing that some kinds of beauty just do not give her pleasure is an important kind of honesty.

I, on the other hand, have a long "Thank you, Lord"  list of things that other people enjoy, which I am grateful not to desire.  The list began with "Thank you, Lord, I do not want a boat."  New items get added all the time. Contentment with what you have, and counting what you do not desire, is the cheapest way to feel rich - and in that way, I am loaded.